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The reluctant art 


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Green, Benny, 1927- 

The reluctant art; the 
growth of jazz. 
1963 fcl96 





New York 





Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 63-10701 






1 'WHY RELUCTANT' Page 13 








Music does not come out of the ether, it has to be conceived 
and performed by musicians. This is a very unfashionable 
view in the jazz world, where thousands of people spend their 
entire lives shoring up the walls of the romantic legend of 
jazz, pasting over the cracks in those walls which must 
inevitably be made by the long-range guns of reality. The 
legend, of course, is very attractive and takes more than one 
form. For instance, it can be Jazz as the Bawdy Musical 
Expression of Nonconformity, or Jazz as the Great Artistic 
and Intellectual Significance of Our Time. On the face of it 
this may appear strange, because the first version contradicts 
the second. But this, after all, is the very essence of legend, 
whose irresistible attraction lies in its independence of the 
commonplace rules of logic. Galatea may change into a 
woman and Dionysus into a ram without upsetting in the 
slightest the reader who approaches these metamorphoses in 
the appropriate spirit, and by the same token John Lewis may 
change into an Oracle and Mezz Mezzrow into Pure Fiction 
without causing much bewilderment in the spectators. Un- 
fortunately the working musician rarely has much time for 
such diverting sport and has to face the realities of his 
profession as best he can. 

Those realities are hard and uncompromising, and revolve 
around a single familiar pivot, which is that most people have 



neither the time nor the temperament to interest themselves 
in what he is doing. They may embrace the trappings of his 
world as part of a social cult They may cherish his music as a 
private, entirely subjective world of their own, unconsciously 
using the jazz they hear as the incidental music to a Proustian 
reconstruction of their own lives. They may support his 
efforts as part of their sociological homework. But only rarely 
are they inclined to trouble themselves to discover very much 
about the music itself and why it sounds the way it does. To 
most people the evolving styles of jazz occur with the same 
inevitability as the hands moving slowly around a clockface, 
and if some explanation must be provided, it usually has 
something to do with a magical aesthetic Life Force thrusting 
the musician onward and upward to artistic achievements 
over which he has little or no control. 

The attitude of the musician towards this outside world 
with which he has somehow to come to terms, usually takes 
one of three forms. Either he is amused, or he is disgusted, 
or he believes what people tell him about himself. The first 
reaction gives us the high comedy of the hipster abroad in a 
world of dullards, the second the belligerence and pathos of 
the seeker after cheap euphoria, while the third establishes 
nebulous messiahs who come to regard the music they play as 
a kind of free pass into the pantheon of great art. 

Now there is one way in which Jazz really is the most 
astonishing of all the arts, invaluable to the student of the 
artistic process, and that is the highly pressurized rate of its 
evolution. Jazz music has moved from Primitivism to Neo- 
Classicism within the space of half a century, and so, just as 
geneticists may breed a thousand generations of insects to 
study the effect of environment on hereditary tendencies, so 
the documentor of art may make a detailed study of jazz and 
note the effect of economic pressures on the nuances of 
instrumental thought. 

T 4 


This hypothetical observer will discover a certain disarm- 
ing nalveU about jazz. He will find that it came into the world 
conceived in such complete cultural innocence that it never 
even knew it was a form of artistic expression at all. He will 
find that even today few people in the jazz world have really 
got over the joke. For the jazz musician, groping and 
stumbling forward in his quest for articulate expression, has 
been rather like a shipwrecked man who, knowing nothing of 
life on the mainland, slowly and painfully evolves his own 
primitive kind of alphabet, and is so elated after years of 
struggle to discover words of two syllables that he sincerely 
believes he has made a significant step forward on behalf of 
civilization. And, indeed, how can we laugh at him? He has 
performed a prodigious feat, and to belittle him because he 
has not yet evolved the sonnet form or mastered the subtleties 
of Irony would be most uncharitable. 

That is why the terms employed in jazz criticism apply 
only in their own context, in the same way as the literacy of 
our islander only remains literacy by the standards of the 
island. The modernism of jazz is not modernism at all to 
anybody with a reasonable knowledge of nineteenth century 
music. It is merely called modern to mark the point in the 
evolution of jazz when one of its few real geniuses made the 
giant step from diatonic to chromatic harmony. In that sense 
only is the jazz of Charlie Parker modern. 

There have been a few men who played similar roles to 
Parker. For various reasons these men found the conventions 
of their day inadequate, and attempted to break new ground. 
Sometimes their reasons were not purely musical. Sometimes 
they were not the outstanding musicians of their time. No- 
body would pretend, for instance, that my inclusion of Benny 
Goodman in this collection and my omission of Louis Arm- 
strong implies a belief that Goodman was a greater jazz 
musician than Armstrong. Some artists, and Armstrong is 



one of them, produce art so indigenous to their own spirit that 
it never occurs to them to change or evolve in any way. They 
create masterpieces so daunting that those who follow them 
are impelled to break away from the pattern and find some- 
thing of their own. Which brings us to the second of the two 
huge jokes of jazz history, its relentless advance towards 

As jazz advances technically, as it assimilates harmonies 
more and more complex, as it absorbs rhythmic variations 
that would have whitened the hair of the primitives of New 
Orleans, as it takes Chromaticism in its stride without 
strangling itself, it also advances socially, from the brothel to 
the ginmill to the dance hall to the concert stage and the 
cultural festivals of the world. Of course the music itself lost 
its innocence a long time ago, perhaps in the ballrooms of the 
Roosevelt era. But its practitioners still wrestle manfully 
with the terrifying problem of keeping alive the earthy spark 
of its beginnings. And every time somebody introduces a new 
harmony into the jazz context, then the task becomes more 

For the production of valid jazz depends on a delicate 
compromise between acute awareness and complete unself- 
conscious ease, between extreme artistic agility and consum- 
mate relaxation. A jazz musician is a juggler who uses 
harmonies instead of oranges. So long as he limits himself to 
the ensemble techniques of early New Orleans he is being 
very spectacular about throwing and catching the lone orange 
of dominant-to-tonic discord and resolution. Each time he 
throws up an additional orange, it becomes increasingly 
difficult for him to achieve that relaxed poise of the spirit 
without which no jazz is worth the playing. No matter how 
dexterous he may be, he will become a bore if his preoccupa- 
tion with the oranges destroys the charm of his movements 
and the grace of his attitude. Today our modernists are 



striving so hard that the air is thick with flying oranges, many 
of which fall to earth and trip up the juggler. 

Jazz criticism often tends to place importance on the wrong 
aspects of this juggling act. Mr Balliet tells us how the oranges 
often appear to him as light brown or deep purple in colour. 
M. Hodeir calculates the velocity and rate of acceleration of 
the oranges, and then selflessly credits the musicians with a 
mathematical subtlety which they do not possess. M. Pan- 
nassie insists that once the number of oranges passes a limit 
set by himself, all the oranges cease to exist altogether. For 
the juggler it remains a tortuous affair. But a few valiant 
spirits still manage to perform fantastic feats of skill. And 
they have the questionable compensation of knowing that the 
background against which they perform their art gradually 
becomes better upholstered, better ventilated and better 
patronized as time goes on. 

Whether this is really what the jazz musician wants I do 
not know, because he can be just as insufferable about the 
glories of the ginmill as he sometimes is about the kudos of 
the concert hall. But whatever his feelings about the daunting 
responsibility of the Creative Artist where once there was 
only the kick of having a blow, the handful of musicians who 
changed his situation either musically or socially or both at 
the same time, either deliberately or accidentally, either for 
better or for worse, are in some ways the most fascinating and 
significant figures on the entire jazz landscape. 


'. . . which is the right man, 
Walt Whitman or Paul Whiteman? . . .' 


THE curse of jazz music is its hagiography, perhaps only to 
be expected in an art form possessing so much surface flam- 
boyancy. The apparent glory of the spectacle of a lone soloist 
pitting his inventive powers against the world every time he 
stands up to play, combined with the element of the picares- 
que in so many gifted musicians, has been the supreme mis- 
fortune of the music. Popular journalism has found it easy 
to tack on to the body of jazz a spurious romanticism tending 
to obscure the art that lies beyond. There has been a surfeit 
of what Walter Sickert once called 'the recourse to melodrama 
to which the disinclination for real critical work drives some 

Not all the journalism was meant to have this effect. Some 
of the very worst critics had the very best intentions. The 
effect has been deadly nonetheless. Artistic prowess has been 
neglected in favour of what the twentieth century refers to as 
'human interest', a phrase which implies that poking one's 
nose into other people's business is more edifying than poking 
one's soul into other people's art. 

Now the effect of magnifying the artist's personal foibles 



at the expense of his creative output is to create a sourceless 
mythology, an order of saints without divine inspiration of 
any kind, which is precisely what has happened to jazz all 
through its history, and precisely why the world at large is 
consistently baffled by the spectacle of a bohemia seemingly 
peopled only by eccentrics and degenerates producing music 
which doesn't sound like music at all. It is as though for 
every genuine lover of painting there were fifty who knew 
only that Toulouse-Lautrec frequented bawdy houses. 

That Buddy Bolden should be immortalized as a barber 
and scandalmonger whose trumpet could be heard at a range 
of one, five or ten miles, depending on the degree of fanatic- 
ism to which one adheres to his particular legend, is under- 
standable, for no recordings of Buddy Bolden exist. That 
Freddie Keppard should be remembered for covering his 
trumpet valves with a handkerchief to hide his fingerings 
from covetous rivals is a little less sane, though it may well be 
aesthetic justice. That Frank Teschmaker should be mourned 
as an incipient genius cut down by a premature death is 
hardly acceptable in the light of his recorded work. That 
Lester Young should be deified as The Man in the Pork-Pie 
Hat and Charlie Parker fondly recollected as an attempted 
suicide is quite unforgivable, for by now the legend is 
devouring the art from which it sprang. 

With Bix Beiderbecke the position is already impossible. 
Sanity long ago fled in wild disorder from the task of inter- 
preting his career. The damage was done many years ago by 
two agencies, the mawkish contemporaries who grabbed 
prestige from accidental associations with him, and the dis- 
gracefully inept journalism over the years which encouraged 
the process because it made what was called 'very good copy', 
which always means very bad copy. Bix is jazz's Number 
One Saint, and any attempt at a rational analysis of his talent 
usually invokes the bitterness of a theological dispute. 



Today Bix is a kind of patron saint of Improvisation, a 
beatific figure before whom the idolators kneel in reverence, 
and at whom the debunkers heave giant brickbats. Of course 
the circumstances were ideal for this process of deification. 
The exquisite talent, the weakness for bathtub gin, the 
seraphic smile, the artistic frustration, the premature death, 
all played out against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties. 
The fa$ade has been building up, brick upon critical brick 
over the years, until today the man is equated with all kinds 
of people, objects and causes with which he has only the most 
tenuous connections. Today, when anybody mentions Bix 
Beiderbecke, a confused vision is conjured up of all the 
variegated symbols with which he has been juxtaposed, from 
Capone to Gatsby, from the crude fact to the artistic synthesis 
of the fact. The dismal truth awaiting the earnest student of 
Bix is that his vision will become impaired the moment 
he breathes Bix's name, and that instead of one figure he will 
see half a dozen, all interesting enough, but only one of which 
has much to do with music. The five spurious Beiderbeckes 
feed on the single reality, the hard core at the heart of the 
myth, the creative artist. There is the cardboard martyr of the 
Bixophiles who concoct biographies with acknowledgments 
to the Princeton dance programmes of the Jazz Age; there is 
the marvellous boy one critic talked of 'with wisps of genius 
swirling around in his brain*; there is the whimsy- whamsy 
superman of the Condon-Carmichael anecdotes ; there is the 
baby-faced apotheosis of the Jazz Age, with glib parallels 
drawn between the Bix Crash and the Wall Street Crash 
*. . . like the stock markets, he was riding high but shake by 
1929'; there is the actual jazz musician, the one-sixth of the 
legend which has supported the parasitic growth of the other 
five-sixths; and, finally, and in some ways the most fascina- 
ting of all facets of the legend, there is the fictive Bix pro- 
jected by Miss Dorothy Baker in her novel Young Man With 



a Horn, a book so perfectly symptomatic of the failure of the 
writer of fiction to perceive the quintessence of the Jazz Life 
that the discrepancies between it and the reality of Bix's 
experience should serve as an invaluable guide to the 
aspiring writer of jazz fiction. 

Fragments of the Bix myth are quite true of course. Bix 
Beiderbecke really is a key figure in the development of jazz. 
His dilemma really was a new one for the improvising 
musician, and he really was the first, perhaps the only, white 
musician to contribute something completely original to the 
jazz art which was not artistically suspect. Digesting the bare 
facts of his life one is soon convinced of the peculiar lovability 
of this amiable goofer Bix Beiderbecke, with his frightful 
naweti in a worldly environment and his helplessness or 
irresponsibility which made a man like Frank Trumbauer 
desire to father him even at the expense of his own career. 
But Bix offered up as a martyr on the altar of fine art is more 
difficult to swallow. Bix's death, by no means the outcome of 
a self-destructive lust, seems rather to have been, like every- 
thing else in his life except his music, a confused accident, the 
aimless drift of an unsophisticated young man who was hardly 
aware at any time, of what was happening to him. 

There were huge blanks in his musical education, and he 
evidently became increasingly aware of them. He must also 
have realized the comic ineptitude of many of the musicians 
with whom he worked. No great jazz musician ever kept 
worse musical company than Bix Beiderbecke. He seems to 
have spent most of his career working with lame dogs and 
most of his energies in helping them over a style. This 
apparent indifference to the poor quality of his companions 
is one of the surest indications of his amazing lack of aware- 
ness as a creative artist. To him, the dedicated ruthlessness 
of the creator would have seemed mere churlishness. Pee- 
Wee Russell once said, 'His disposition wasn't one to 



complain. He wasn't able to say, "I don't like this guy, let's 
give him the gate and get so-and-so". He was never a guy to 
complain about the company he was in.' It is in that last 
sentence of Russell's, and not in the idiotic talk of selling his 
soul to Paul Whiteman, that the only real indictment of Bix 
lies. 'He was never a guy to complain of the company he was 
in'. No more deadly accusation could be levelled at any artist. 

Sensational as Bix's arrival must have seemed to those who 
witnessed it, it is clear on reflection that nothing could have 
been more inevitable. Of all the things that had to happen to 
jazz, Bix had to happen to it more certainly than all the others, 
and when jazz has finally run its course and its development 
seen for what it is, a single continuous process, even the time 
at which he appeared will seem to have been predictable 
almost to the year. The jazz Bix heard as a boy was born of a 
sociological phenomenon whose total effect on the history of 
man has yet to be charted. Jazz was the musical expression of 
an oppressed minority dumped on an alien society, and in its 
beginnings was therefore not respectable, certainly not to the 
kind of middle-class immigrants the Beiderbeckes typified. 

By the time Bix was old enough to understand what he was 
hearing, jazz had already begun its advance north. He was 
only one of thousands of white youths intrigued by it. And 
just as surely as jazz was the result of the transference of 
African native culture into the melting pot of the Deep South, 
so was the Bixian dilemma of the last years born of the con- 
trast between the hybrid music Bix played and the sensi- 
bilities of the essentially European mind which conceived 
that music, for although Bix is always nominated as the 
All- American Boy of his period (the notes to the Memorial 
album on American Columbia begin 'The Bix Beiderbecke 
Story is the great romantic legend of American jazz'), Bix 
was the son of German immigrants aware of European music 
who tried to school the boy in what they thought they knew. 



There is indeed a sense in which Bix was a martyr, but it 
has nothing to do with all the puerilities about marijuana 
nights and bathtub gin. Bix was the first jazz musician who 
felt obliged to attempt a widening of the harmonic scope of 
jazz by grafting on to it some of the elementary movements of 
modern harmony, the first improviser to try to take the 
patterns beyond the primitive shapes of New Orleans and 
give them a tint of the subtleties of the Impressionist com- 
posers of Europe. 

By the end of his short life he had become less interested in 
the cornet, and obsessed instead by the piano and the half- 
formulated pieces he composed for it, a change of attitude 
with the most profound implications. The added harmonic 
dimensions of the piano, on which he was able to strike 
several notes simultaneously, were obviously better suited to 
his purpose. By that time the early days with the Wolverines 
only seven years before, days when he was a mere boy carry- 
ing the entire band on his shoulders, must have seemed far 
distant indeed, uncomplicated days before his own develop- 
ing sensibilities forced him far beyond the point for which his 
training and experience had equipped him. 

The body of legend dimly appreciates that a tension of this 
kind existed somewhere in Beiderbecke's life, but interprets 
it with unfailing lack of perception. The Bix legend goes very 
briefly as follows 'Innocent young white boy with jazz gift. 
Becomes recognized and records masterpieces in the Big 
City. Starts to drink. Reaches peak around 1927. Sells his 
soul to commercialism. Falls ill. Half-recovers. Dies. End of 
life, beginning of legend.' It will be perceived that this frame- 
work leaves convenient gaps for the insertion of gangsters, 
the Right Woman, the Wrong Woman and the rest of the 
clumsy farrago which takes the music for granted and delivers 
a kind of affectionate rap on Bix's posthumous knuckles for 
being naughty enough to join a band as corrupted as Paul 


Whiteman's, a band whose only contribution to jazz was the 
money it poured into the pockets of those who sat in its 
elephantine ranks. 

This artistic defection of Bix's is the one big blot on his 
copybook, the sole act for which posterity finds it difficult to 
forgive him. Indeed some criticism cannot find the heart to 
forgive him at all, being possessed of no heart in the first 
place, nor a brain nor an ear. Rudi Blesh once wrote with 
tight-lipped resolution, 'Bix's playing is weak. He just pre- 
tended to be a jazz musician because his weakness permitted 
him to play in the commercial orchestras of Whiteman and 
Jean Goldkette. Bix was neither a tragic nor an heroic 
character, he was a figure of pathos.' Leaving aside the 
curious defective logic of Blesh's second sentence, I am 
obliged to admit that there is a whole school of this criticism 
which discounts Bix, and throughout this school great stress 
is laid on the fact that Bix finally went for the fleshpots when 
he should have been preserving his innocence. 

Now this kind of plot stands up very well when it is trans- 
ferred to an idiom as crass as itself, for instance Hollywood 
and the fourpenny library romantics. But as an evaluation of 
Beiderbecke the artist it is so wildly inept that no deliberate 
parody of authentic criticism could ever get further from the 
mark. The truth about what happened to Bix and the motives 
behind his apparently irresponsible behaviour are obvious to 
any thinking jazz musician who has himself experienced, 
even if to a far less vital degree, the process which took hold 
of Beiderbecke. Educated by his own worldly experience as 
an artist, the jazz musician looks at the great mound of 
rubbish which has accumulated about Bix's figure and 
chuckles in wonder to himself, thinking perhaps that after 
all it is hardly reasonable to expect much better from such a 
parcel of fools. 

The Artist-Who-Sold-His-SouI-For-A-Hip-Flask theory 



is useful in one way, because it is so completely, utterly hope- 
lessly wrong that all one has to do to get to the truth of the 
matter is to reverse all its main propositions. After all, the 
man who is consistently wrong is just as sure a guide to con- 
duct as the man who is consistently right. 

The one significant thing about Bix is not that he sold his 
soul to Paul Whiteman for three hundred dollars a week, but 
that he refused to sell his soul, no matter what the conse- 
quences, and that he would have been prepared to sacrifice 
everything, even the one priceless gift he possessed, his jazz 
gift, rather than compromise musically so much as a semi- 
quaver. The conventionally accepted story of Bix's growing 
artistic lassitude which finally destroyed him, may be neatly 
reversed to arrive at the truth. Bix embodies the case of 
artistic irresponsibility and unawareness which imperceptibly 
evolves into a growing wonder at the glory of music and a 
desperate attempt to create something worthy of that glory. 
It is a process half-aesthetic, half-intuitive, and all the more 
peculiar for the fact that throughout his adult years Bix 
remained intellectually unaware of the process that had taken 
hold of him, unable to rationalize its effects, unable to help 
the process along, unable even to opt out for the simple 
reason he was hardly aware he had ever been opted in. Iain 
Lang struck miles nearer the target than Blesh when he re- 
marked that there was no hard core of intelligence or charac- 
ter in Bix to enable him to cope with his unwieldy fame, 
although he too goes on to describe the Whiteman episode 
as a compromise. 

What did, in fact, happen to Bix had to happen to some- 
body as soon as jazz started to travel north into the nation at 
large where middle-class whites like Bix could hear it and be 
stirred by it. About Bix's reaction to the tremendous strains 
imposed upon him by his unique experience at the hands of 
music, there is something which borders, not on the heroic, 


but on the comic, and the fact that neither intellectually nor 
morally was he equipped to cope with that experience does 
make some belated sense out of Blesh's word 'pathetic'. The 
most comical thing of all about this battered reputation of 
Bix Beiderbecke is that there is little opposition to the Sale-of- 
Soul theory. Instead of opinion being divided between the 
Bleshes on one hand, who believe that as Bix knew he 
couldn't play jazz anyway, he joined the highest-paid band in 
the country and made the best financially out of his own 
shortcomings, and those like myself who can see quite clearly 
that joining Whiteman was artistically the only honest thing 
Bix could possibly have done, the field is divided between 
those who know Bix joined Whiteman and despise him for it, 
and those who know he joined Whiteman and forgive him for 
it. Both the Bixophobes and the Bixophiles miss the point. 

* * * 

In 1923 a band called the New Orleans Rhythm Kings was 
playing in Chicago. It was the first important white band in 
jazz history and it was among those which brought to Chicago 
the authentic source-music of New Orleans. Bix Beiderbecke, 
enrolled at a nearby military academy for the sons of middle- 
class families, spent his week-ends listening to them. By the 
end of the year, he was already propping up his comrades in 
the Wolverines, the first white band to be composed wholly of 
non-New Orleans musicians. These 'firsts' are more im- 
portant than they might appear to the casual reader, for they 
chart minutely the spread of jazz across the Continent. The 
Rhythm Kings were significant because they were the first 
convincing proof (with apologies to the Original Dixieland 
Jazz Band) that white musicians could generate effectively 
the spirit of jazz. And the Wolverines were just as significant 
because they proved, though far less effectively, that this 
spirit could be acquired at second-hand, that jazz was not 



merely a local dialect, but that those with a sympathy for it 
and some musical endowment might come to acquire its 
nuances. The New Orleans Rhythm Kings and the Wolver- 
ines are the first and second premises in the proof of the 
proposition that jazz, like more formal kinds of music, is 

The incident of the young Beiderbecke catching up with 
the rare spectacle of the Rhythm Kings in full cry is not so 
extraordinary. There were thousands like Bix who sensed 
that something unusual had happened to music. For those 
thousands, the piquancy of the experience must slowly have 
faded away, finally achieving the status of an adolescent love 
affair, as indeed it was in a way, fondly but faintly remem- 
bered. Bix did not react in this way for the very good reason 
that he was abnormal. Perhaps only slightly so, but enough to 
transform what was for others a casual incident on the road to 
maturity into an event of shattering import. Bix was that rare 
bird, the natural or born musician, the kind who unnerves the 
layman when he reads about him and tempts him to embrace 
half-baked theories of reincarnation or demoniac possession 
to explain away his own mediocrity. Bix's musical gift as a 
small child even won a brief local fame. His mother later said 
that at three years he could pick out with one finger on the 
piano the melody of Xiszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody. 
Later the Davenport press referred to 'this prodigy who at 
seven could play any selection he heard'. 

We now come to the first significant point in Bix's develop- 
ment. An attempt was made at formal musical instruction. 
The attempt failed. It failed because, as George Hoefer wrote 
in one of the few rational essays on Bix which exist, *The 
teacher gave up, realizing he couldn't teach the boy anything 
and that the talent was one which lay deep within'. In fact, 
time was to prove that it lay so deep within that nobody, Bix 
included, ever really succeeded in digging it out. 



Now the failure at formal instruction represents the kind of 
impasse which is reached in almost all attempts of parents to 
educate their children musically. The comedy of the Piano 
Lesson looms large in the childhood of countless people 
whose musical potential proved to be negligible. Someone 
notices in a child what he thinks is an obvious gift for music, 
at which the middle-class vision sees the concert halls of 
Europe, tailcoats and floral tributes. The lessons, if they are 
given at all, are usually given very badly, and the collapse of 
the scheme quickly follows, bringing down with it whatever 
might have been of the original talent. The precosity is half- 
forgotten and over the years is gradually reduced to the 
proportions of a family reminiscence. ...'... you should 
have heard Bixie when he was a kid. Play anything and 
couldn't read a note. That kid really had an ear for music. . . .* 

As it happened, Bixie had more than just an ear for music, 
he had something much more serious, a soul which hungered 
for it. Evidently when the teaching began, Bix was too young 
and too immature to sense any dynamic in what he was being 
shown, but in his teens he had a fresh encounter with music 
in the one form capable of galvanizing him into positive 
action. He needed something bright and gaudy to attract his 
adolescent sensibilities, something with immediate appeal 
and not too much depth, something with an aura of excite- 
ment about it, above all something free enough from 
tradition to appeal to his undisciplined, unschooled musical 
faculty. The recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band 
and later the New Orleans Rhythm Kings filled the bill to 

Of Bix's progress up to and including the Wolverines 
episode there is no evidence of any conflict in his mind about 
what he was doing. The Wolverines' music was crude and 
naive and, Bix apart, mediocre jazz even for the period. Even 
Bix is no more than promising, despite the retrospective 



hysteria of the Bixophiles. Jazz was a goodtime music and the 
Wolverines were a goodtime band. Any talk of self-expres- 
sion or aesthetic morality would have meant little to its 
members, a collection of nondescript college boys with very 
questionable gifts for jazz or any other kind of music. Years 
later some of them confessed that Bix finally left them because 
the gulf between his potential and theirs had become 
ludicrous. The point is that while he was with the Wolverines 
the horizons of jazz were Bix's horizons too. 

It is in the next phase of Bix's career that one can see the 
first signs of the dilemma which was to envelop him. The 
young cornetist leaves the Wolverines and eventually joins 
Charlie Straight's band in Chicago. But before this a most 
curious sequence of events occurs. In February 1925, already 
a professional musician of three years standing, Bix enrols 
at the University of Iowa, registering for English, Religion 
and Ethics, Music Theory, Piano Lessons and Music 
History. At his first interview with his freshman adviser, Bix 
asks to drop Religion and take more music instead, as neat 
a summation of his life as anybody could make. The request 
is refused and instead Bix is ordered to enrol immediately for 
Military Training, Physical Education and Freshman 
lectures. Four days later Bix and the University of Iowa part 
company forever. 

The incident certainly appears comical in retrospect, but 
to do justice to the University of Iowa, which is more than it 
did to Bix, its behaviour was no more fatuous than that of 
most educational institutions. That a place of instruction 
should refuse to teach music to a brilliant natural musician 
like Bix, and instruct him instead in the art of cleaning a 
dummy rifle may look like a parody, but to Bix at the time it 
must have been a nasty shock. Reality is the most merciless 
satirist of all. 

This astonishing interlude in his career is the first outward 



sign of what was happening to Bix the musician. A glance at 
the subjects he named and the additional ones he requested, 
reveals the process. What he was attempting to do at the 
University of Iowa was to revoke his own decision of years 
before when he refused to co-operate in the matter of his own 
musical education. The fiasco in the Davenport front parlour 
was the first crisis and the fiasco at the University of Iowa 
the second, and they are closely related. In some way the 
passion for formal knowledge and instruction, dormant since 
early adolescence, was awakened. The months of playing with 
the Wolverines were evidently months of self-revelation, 
months in which Bix became aware for the first time as an 
adult of the power of music in his life. The attempt to enrol at 
the University of Iowa was the first stage in the blind stumble 
towards orthodoxy which is the story of Beiderbecke's 
artistic life. The embryo-student in Bix is one of the facets of 
the man which fascinated Dorothy Baker when she came to 
write her novel about him, although the misreading of the 
social background and the hero's relation to music made 
nonsense of the whole experience, as we shall see. 

The Bix legends begin to date from this time. From now 
on, two things impress those who talk about him, his inborn 
musical gift and his personal eccentricities. That master- 
purveyor of Bixian whimsy, Hoagy Carmichael, has claimed 
that his soul was so disturbed on first hearing Bix that he 
instantly fell off a davenport, 1 which may or may not have 
been intended as an oblique reference to Bix's origins. 

Carmichael worked zealously on the Bix legends, from the 
Princeton dance dates with the Wolverines, right through to 

1 Not the most idiotic reaction to music ever recorded. 'The 
Ellington brass section arose and delivered such an intricate and 
unbelievably integrated chorus that the late Eddie Duchin, usually 
a poised and dignified musician, actually and literally rolled on the 
floor under his table in ecstasy.' Hear Me Talkin' to Ya. Hentoff and 



the last days of the summer of 1931. It is difficult to know 
how much to take of CarmichaePs anecdotage, for there is no 
doubt that enthusiasm for his subject and his gift for savour- 
ing a good sentimental story are apt to run away with Car- 
michaers tongue when Bix is being discussed. The only time 
I ever met Carmichael, he had half a dozen Bix stories at his 
fingertips, stories I had never heard before, and I confess I 
found myself wondering whether Carmichael had either. 

The catalogue of Bix's vagueness in everyday life is the 
conventionally unconventional one. Forgetting personal 
belongings, having no money in his pockets, forgetting to go 
to bed, leaving his instrument in a succession of bars and 
speakeasies. Some of these stories may have exaggerated the 
whimsicality of the man, but they are hardly misleading in a 
consideration of the musician. 

Music was the only thing that had any reality for him. Iain 
Lang's descriptive phrase, 'a playing fool', sums up Bix 
perfectly. He was indeed a playing fool in the idiomatic sense 
of the phrase, in that to play came first, last and everywhere 
for him, that to play was the only function which had any 
true meaning, that nothing which was not directly connected 
with playing was worth half a thought. 

Every action in Bix's life from the time he left home points 
to this conclusion. And yet there are men grown in years if 
nothing much else who glance hastily at the sums of money 
Bix earned and deduce as the reader of a dime magazine 
deduces, without wit or integrity. They make the discovery 
that Paul Whiteman paid Bix more than anyone else did, and 
that therefore Bix's joining Whiteman was a more heinous 
crime than his joining, say, Charlie Straight, Jean Goldkette, 
or even the University of Iowa. I wonder how jazz critics 
would react were their integrity assessed in the same way. 

As early as 1922 Bix had what was for the jazz musician of 
the time an unusual interest in what for lack of a better phrase 



might be termed non-jazz harmonies. One ex-student of 
Chicago University who worked a date with Bix around this 
time said that during intermissions Bix would 'park on the 
piano bench and improvise, much to the consternation of the 
other musicians, who thought he was playing nothing but a 
progression of discords ... he was playing sixth, ninth and 
thirteenth chords which later became common in dance 
arrangements. In those days dance numbers were played 
with only the simplest harmonies.' 

Victor Moore, the drummer with the Wolverines, testified 
that Bix attended concerts even in the Wolverine days, and 
of later times he says, 'In 1929, when I made my first visit 
to New York in four years, I met Bix downtown, and almost 
the first thing he said to me was, " Come on, I've got seats for 
the symphony tonight." After the concert we went backstage, 
where Bix was enthusiastically received by the musicians, 
who considered him a genius and were proud of his friend- 

Moore's remark about the reaction of the legitimate music- 
ians is intriguing and very possibly true, for by 1929, Bix, 
besides having become something of a connoisseur of modern 
classics, was beginning to evolve into a confused embryo of a 
composer himself, although the process was taking place 
despite his conscious efforts rather than because of them. 
Before this period, however, Bix had met a musician who was 
to have a profound effect upon his career and finally ended 
his own in either dedication or disillusion. Frank Trumbauer 
is unique in jazz history, for he is the only musician known to 
have suffered artistic death at second hand. It is as though 
when Bix was buried Frank Trumbauer was vicariously 
buried with him, for from the day of Bix's death, Trumbauer 
ceases to play much active part in a musical world where he 
had been most prominent. 

Trumbauer was the diametric opposite of Bix in many 



ways. As a musician, he was a minor talent although he is 
said, because of his drastic tonal amendments, to have 
become a figure of great interest and some inspiration to 
Lester Young. Trumbauer was an excellent executive 
musician by the standard of the jazz world of the late 19205, 
and even more important, he was a practical man. It was 
Trumbauer who procured for Bix regular jobs and recording 
sessions from the days when they first worked together in 
Trumbauer's band in St Louis in 1925. From then till Bix's 
death Trumbauer contrived to work in the same band as Bix 
whenever possible. He got them both the Goldkette and the 
Whiteman jobs and was also partly responsible for the pattern 
of the great Bix recordings of the period. For these reasons he 
is sometimes depicted as the villain of the piece, the man who 
seduced Bix away from the path of virtue, the agent who 
handed Whiteman Bix's head on a plate. In fact, if Bix had 
never met Trumbauer, most of his great recordings might 
never have been cut at all. 

The Bix-Tram recordings were the best Bix ever made, 
though the reason had nothing to do with Trumbauer's 
organizing ability. By 1927 Bix had reached the point of 
perfect balance between his inborn jazz gift and his artistic 
awareness of European music. The acquisition by an un- 
schooled musician of a more conventional and literate taste 
may eventually lead to a kind of ossification of the jazz spirit, 
as the career of a player like Benny Goodman testifies. But 
before that stage is reached when the musical limb becomes 
atrophied from the overtaxing of its muscles, great benefits 
may accrue. By 1927 Bix had reached this stage. His jazz 
ability had matured, and his sensibilities were now highly 
refined through his contact with modern classical music. 
Before 1926 he was far cruder. After 1928 he suffered partial 
and inexorably advancing paralysis because of the relentless 
advance of those same sensibilities. The point of balance was 



reached in the handful of recordings he made with Trum- 
bauer in 1927-28. 

The really significant thing about Bix's solos in 'Singing the 
Blues', Tm Coming, Virginia', and 'Way Down Yonder 
in New Orleans' is that the playing is the product of a com- 
pletely confident and lucid mind. The advance on the boyish 
enthusiasm of the Wolverines is immeasurable. For the first 
time the unbiased listener can dispense with the five ghostly 
Sixes and come to grips with the reality of Beiderbecke's 
greatness. Only now does the student, till now floundering in 
the quicksands of the unwieldy Bix legend, find himself on 
firm ground. 

Like Hamlet, 'Singing the Blues' is full of quotations. It is 
the most plagiarized and frankly imitated solo in all jazz 
history. For trumpeters of the same school, like Bobby 
Hackett and Jimmy McPartland, it has become a set piece, a 
tiny fragment of improvisation that has come to achieve the 
unexpected dignity of a formal composition. 

When a musician hears Bix's solo on 'Singing the Blues', 
he becomes aware after two bars that the soloist knows 
exactly what he is doing and that he has an exquisite sense of 
discord and resolution. He knows also that this player is 
endowed with the rarest jazz gift of all, a sense of form which 
lends to an improvised performance a coherence which no 
amount of teaching can produce. The listening musician, 
whatever his generation or his style, recognizes Bix as a 
modern, modernism being not a style but an attitude. At this 
point some explanation may be required, for we have arrived 
at another of the apparent contradictions in Bix. If he was so 
poised a musician on his great recordings, what of all the talk 
of the days with Whiteman when the arrangers left blanks in 
the score for Bix's solo, and the troubles Bix had reading 
simple parts which his fellows could read with ease? Was Bix 
illiterate or wasn't he? 



Bix may not have been a very proficient sight-reader, but 
that does not mean he did not understand the nature of 
harmonic progression. Sight-reading bears the same relation- 
ship to improvising on a chord sequence as reciting doggerel 
does to the composition of light verse. So much for the legend 
of Bix's illiteracy, nurtured in a critical climate which finds 
incapacity of any kind romantic, and artistic shiftlessness 
picturesque. Whether or not Bix could read the meticulous 
drivel written for the Whiteman book is quite irrelevant to 
the issue of his literacy. Literacy in music can be achieved 
only by the use of the two appendages stuck on either side of 
the human head in rough symmetry. Bix's solo in 'Singing 
the Blues*, with its formal logic, its subtlety, its sureness of 
movement from cadence to cadence, and its characteristic 
implication of a deep sigh in place of the extrovert passion of 
his coloured contemporaries, is musical literacy of the rarest 

The Bix solos of this period are museum pieces because 
they are the first peak reached by the white musician in his 
pursuit of what had been exclusively a coloured muse. In the 
person of Beiderbecke the contact of the white races with jazz 
blossoms for the first time into minor works of art, and 
naturally the character of these works is quite different from 
the nature of the great coloured jazz of the period. In Bix, the 
racial exuberance of Louis Armstrong has been distilled 
through an alien temperament. There is melancholy in Bix's 
playing, but it is not the extrovert melancholy of the blues. 
It is something unmistakably bitter-sweet, a quality which 
once led Francis Newton to draw the comparison with 
Watteau rather than with Bessie Smith. In Bix's day racial 
segregation was one of the facts of life in the jazz world, at 
least so far as the public was concerned. There were no mixed 
bands which appeared officially in public, and even mixed 
recording sessions still seemed an unAmerican activity. 



Because of this phenomenon, people often see the musicians 
of the period in hermetically sealed compartments. There 
appears to be far less social contrast, for instance, between 
Basic and Kenton than there does between Trumbauer and 
Fletcher Henderson, but it is wise to remember that this 
segregation was not nearly so rigid outside working hours. 
The dependence of the knowledgeable jazzlover on record- 
ings may tend to obscure the fact that apparently antipathetic 
figures like Bix and Louis played together and had a healthy 
mutual regard. 

In November 1927, at the end of the year of 'Singing the 
Blues' and Tm Coming, Virginia,' Bix joined Paul White- 
man. The Bixophobes say he did it because he liked the 
sound of the salary. The Bixophiles, on the other hand, see 
his recruitment by Whiteman through Trumbauer as the 
fatal mistake which was to lead to his death, the turning point 
in a tragedy of Attic proportions. But in view of the way in 
which Bix had been reacting to music for the past five years 
his acceptance of the Whiteman job was a perfectly logical 
and artistically justifiable thing to do, keeping in mind, of 
course, the fact that Bix was neither a moralizing bystander 
nor a clear-headed adult. The casual breeze with the Wolver- 
ines had been followed by a dawning interest in classical 
music which led to an unsuccessful attempt to be a student. 
Then came the Charlie Straight Band, where some ability as 
a sight-reader was probably required. After that came Gold- 
kette, where Bix met full orchestrations for the first time. 

Furthermore, there were associated with the Whiteman 
circus two men for whom Bix in his navvetd had tremendous 
admiration, Grofe and Challis. To get into the Whiteman 
band appears to be lots of different things to different people. 
To the layman who has never known the reality of artistic 
activity it seems like a final artistic giving up the ghost. To 
the professional dance band musician with his eye on 



suburban respectability it seems like the crowning of a career, 
the procurement of the top-paying job in a financially 
insecure profession. To a romantic jazz fan it seems like a 
tragic error* True, perhaps, but to Bix Beiderbecke it seemed 
like the largest single step he had yet taken on the quest for 
knowledge, musical profundity, legitimacy, organized activity 
or whatever else one cares to call it. Those who can listen to 
the Whiteman band's dreadful travesties of musical art may 
find this hard to believe, but they should remember that Bix 
possessed neither the worldliness which twenty-five years of 
studying jazz has given to many of us since, nor the critical 
coherence to assess exactly how valuable Whiteman's music 
was. He knew only that there were men working for White- 
man musically literate in the conventional sense, and that to 
work with them must surely enrich his experience and help 
him towards the mystical ultimate in musical expression. 

The point has been made by the carpet knights that in the 
Whiteman band the finest talent on earth might wither if left 
there long enough. If Bix had been fit enough in mind and 
body to continue, then would not his artistic vitality have 
begun to ebb? Very possibly, but although this issue may be 
vital to us, it meant nothing to Bix. Musicians have a dis- 
concerting habit of doing what they want to and not what 
critics think they ought to do. Preserving his jazz gift was not 
what Bix was after. He was stalking bigger game, although 
stalking it with a misguided folly which appears ludicrous 
thirty years after. 

To have warned Bix that a prolonged spell with Whiteman 
might have spoiled his jazz gift would have been as pointless 
as telling a fretting prisoner that the security of his cell is 
more relaxing than the chaos of the world outside. What Bix 
desired was some experience which would enrich him in the 
broad musical sense, and the fact that he was a poor enough 
judge of intrinsic values to think Whiteman *s band could 



give him this experience indicts his judgment but not his 

So far from being a moral coward who sold out to the 
highest bidder, Bix was the blind unreasoning artist who 
followed his advancing sensibilities as only a blind unreason- 
ing artist can, completely oblivious of the consequences. To 
the critics unable to appreciate the kind of musical com- 
positions which had so fascinated Bix, this issue of his advanc- 
ing sensibilities is an inconvenient fact to be pushed hastily 
out of court on the grounds of lack of proof. Bix was not a 
conveniently prolific letterwriter or diarist who chronicled 
his development for the edification of posterity. He was not 
even a conscious artist at all. Nonetheless the truth is as self- 
evident and as irrefutable as if he had left a signed statement. 
It is implicit in his movements from band to band, in the 
development from the Wolverines through Whiteman to his 
death, and above all in his later compositions for the piano. 

It is the supreme irony of Bix Beiderbecke's stay with 
Whiteman that he came to the orchestra seeking after a state 
of musical grace, unwittingly endowing Whiteman as he did 
so with the only real musical grace that clumsy group ever 
possessed. Bix in the Whiteman band looking for pearls of 
wisdom was like Tarzan at a Keep Fit Class. To any intelli- 
gent jazz fancier the one letter Bix actually did write, the one 
to his mother telling how frightened he was at the thought of 
joining a band as renowned as Whiteman's, may seem comical 
enough to make even a Blesh laugh. Here is this gifted 
musician about to bestow on a mediocre vaudeville act his 
own talent, a musician so far above the jazz standards of 
almost all his contemporaries that today we only tolerate the 
horrors of Whiteman's recordings at all in the hope that here 
and there a Bixian fragment will redeem the mess. And here 
is that musician telling his mother that the Whiteman band 
overawes him, 



The summation of the whole Bix-Whiteman paradox is 
contained in the Whiteman recording of 'Sweet Sue*. Every 
indelicacy that might conceivably be crammed into a four- 
minute performance is included in what the sleeve notes to 
the American Columbia Memorial album describe with some 
restraint as *a real period piece'. Quacking brass, lumbering 
tubas, the tinkling of bells and the clashing of cymbals, 
portentous slow movements and dashing fast movements, 
comically bogus profundity, saccharine harmonies, teashop 
violins and what sounds like a deadly parody of every singer, 
male, female and neuter, who ever sat in the ranks of a dance- 
band. In the midst of this farrago, the listener may discover a 
single chorus by Bix Beiderbecke which momentarily dispels 
the nonsense as though by magic. There is no clucking inter- 
ference from the rest of the band. The rhythm section merely 
accompanies Bix for thirty-two bars, and everyone else, from 
Whiteman to the lowest menial on his orchestrating staff, 
leaves it to him. 

The result is that Bix, playing casually enough, never at 
any time approaching the intensity of 'I'm Coming, Virginia', 
or 'Way Down Yonder in New Orleans', still reaches his own 
level of invention, and by the effortless ease of his creativity, 
reveals the pitiful gulf between his own mind and the minds 
which conceived the holocaust preceding and following the 
solo. It is a telling illustration of the truth that the natural 
jazz player will create, without even stopping to think about it, 
phrases which the merely literate orchestrators will never 
think of simply because the scope of their training and 
experience does not include that kind of inventive resource. 

Bix's solo in 'Sweet Sue' is in no way untypical of the time, 
1928. To refer to the text of this particular solo is in no way 
loading the dice. For a Bix solo it is commonplace enough, 
but it contains at least four instances of the peculiar Bixish- 
ness of the man's style. The phrase linking the end of the 



first eight bars with the start of the second eight contains no 
rhythmic complexities of any kind, although the precision 
and attack with which it is played creates the illusion of 
rhythmic force. After climbing the chord of the major sixth, 
the phrase descends in the ninth bar with three notes which 
are archetypal for the curious elusive quality of wistfulness 
one finds occurring so consistently in Bix's jazz. To say that 
these three notes belong to this chord or that means nothing. 
It is in their context in the time and space of the solo, and the 
manner in which they are executed, that their effectiveness 

In the movement from the twelfth to the thirteenth bar 
occurs a quaver of silence in a run of quavers. The momen- 
tary break is totally unexpected because it occurs off the beat, 
where one's sense of rhythm has not led one to expect it, 
instead of on the beat, where it might have sounded ordinary 
enough. The result is a skipping effect which brings a gaiety 
of spirit giving the solo fresh impetus, and causing a subtle 
change of mood from the melancholia of the ninth bar. 

In bars nineteen and twenty the conception of the phrasing 
becomes far bolder than hitherto. The time values change 
from quavers to minim triplets striding across the harmonies 
with a freedom of tonality comparatively rare in those earlier 
days of jazz. In bars twenty-one and twenty-two occurs a 
phrase which appears to be leading on from itself but which 
surprisingly evolves into a sequential echo of itself in the 
following two bars. The solo ends with rather more depen- 
dence on the fifth and tonic than is usual for Bix. 

Now this kind of observation is mere quackery if it is to be 
used to prove that Bix had a profound mind, if for instance 
I were to suggest that Bix consciously played off the melan- 
cholia of the ninth bar against the jollity of the skip three bars 
later. When he played Bix was consciously thinking, as all 
jazz musicians do, no matter what the psychoanalysts may 



say, only of the movement of the harmonies from resolution 
to resolution. Whatever emotional or dramatic effects we may 
care to observe in the result are the product of the intuitive 
powers of the soloist, not his reasoning intelligence at work. 

But examples like this do illustrate Bix's curious individu- 
ality as a jazz musician, and his rare ability to evoke in the 
listener a range of emotions not so common in jazz as one 
might think. The very nature of the melancholia he conjures 
is distinctively Bixian, sensitive and reflective, quite devoid 
of the element of self-pity which obtrudes in so much later 
jazz aiming consciously at the same effects Bix produced 
instinctively. The 'Sweet Sue' solo is superbly musical. It 
has been conceived by a born musician, and that such a man 
could ever have seen any virtue in the feverish goings-on in 
the preceding and subsequent choruses, is only further proof 
of the mess in which the intuitive artist can land himself 
when he lacks the normal reasoning powers. 

* * * 

At the end of 1928 Bix collapsed, after a prolonged spell of 
heavy drinking and keeping his nose to Whiteman's com- 
mercial grindstone. Whiteman sent Bix on a cure for the 
drinking, and gave him a holiday with pay from the orchestra. 
Throughout this period of Bix's absence the band is said to 
have worked with his chair empty on the stand, an anecdote 
which may help to redress the balance of the evidence against 
Whiteman as the villain of the piece. Of course there was no 
villain. Whiteman can hardly be blamed for not pensioning 
Bix off with enough money to keep him in booze and seeing 
that he got the most salutary kind of musical experience. 
Whiteman was just a business man and Bix one of his 
employees. He did all he could reasonably be expected to do 
for Bix and more. He did let Bix record solos like c Sweet Sue', 
even if they shattered the lunatic symmetry of his scores. He 



paid Bix his full salary throughout an absence lasting some 
months. He paid for Bix's cure, and made no attempt to 
replace him till it was quite clear Bix was never coming back. 

The fleshpot theory, having been severely battered by the 
story of Bix's evolving sensitivity, and broken into small 
pieces by the evidence of Bix's letter to his mother, finally 
gets ground into dust by the story of Bix's reactions to his 
own breakdown. The shock of being no longer able to hold 
his place in Whiteman's band did, to quote Hoefer, 'contri- 
bute a great deal to his poor physical and mental condition 
during the last years of his life'. Of course it did. The golden 
door was being slammed in his face, and for the rest of his 
life Bix seems not to have cared very much what else hap- 
pened to him. But the loss to the jazz cause was largely 
hypothetical. The jazz world, had it but known it, had already 
lost Bix before he left Whiteman. And music had gained a 
hopeless convert. 

Carmichael and Jimmy McPartland have both referred to 
Bix's disappointment at not rejoining Whiteman, and indeed 
the facts of Bix's behaviour after his first, partial recovery 
comprise a pathetic record. He insisted on courting White- 
man, trailing in the wake of this lumbering great orchestra, 
trying to persuade Whiteman and himself that everything 
was as it had always been. 

Bix returned to the band, in February 1929, to find that 
Whiteman, up to his neck in commercial radio commitments, 
was demanding the kind of programme that even Bix knew 
was unworthy either as jazz or as the light programme music 
which had once seemed so attractive to him. In September 
Bix collapsed again, returning to his home in Davenport in an 
effort to recover himself. Throughout this convalescence, Bix 
thought of this mythical recovery in terms of a return to 
Whiteman. In April 1930 he was back in New York, looking 
for his job. But Whiteman no longer needed the kind of 



talent that Bix possessed. The Wall Street disaster had been 
followed by economies everywhere in the entertainment 
business, and jazz musicians generally found themselves hard 
put to earn a reasonable living. 

Bix's friends, solicitous as always for the welfare of their 
hero, tried to persuade him to take a job with the Casa Loma 
Orchestra, but Bix, perhaps better educated by now as to 
what was music and what was an unwitting lampoon of itself, 
declined. Some time in September 1929 Bix made his last 
recordings, and in November he returned to Davenport. The 
three months he spent there must have produced comedy of 
classic proportions. Apparently Bix pottered about his home 
town doing a few gigs, playing at a local hotel, and so sick in 
body and spirit that he was barely able even to fulfil even 
these modest obligations. Dorothy Baker turned her back on a 
delicious situation when she ignored this episode in Bix's life, 
perhaps stranger in its way than anything else in the record. 

I suspect the crowning irony must have been the sheer 
ignorance of the town as to who Bix Beiderbecke was anyway. 
The local musicians must have known and wondered. Some 
old acquaintances might have shaken their heads. But the 
real satire of the situation must have arisen from the fact that 
generally jazz musicians are celebrities only to each other. 

In February 1931, Bix returned to New York for the last 
time, by now the inspiration for a full-sized legend. Through- 
out his absence in Davenport people had wondered what was 
wrong with him and how long he might be away. Rumour 
circulated about his sudden death, his remarkable recovery, 
his imminent return, his lost talent, his newfound talent. The 
process of deification began months before he died. 

Bix remained in New York all that summer, doing some 
radio work, staying at home for days at a time. The story of 
his swift decline and death in August has many variations, 
and for an example of the alarming way in which his friends 



insisted on waxing dramatic about him at all times, there is 
Hoagy Carmichaers unabashed version of a day he once 
spent with Bix in the summer of 1931. 

'I went by Bix's room one day. I met a maid in the hall, 
"What's the matter with that fellow anyway?" she asked. 
"Who is he? He hasn't been out of his room for three days." 
'Tell the maid. Who is he? I looked at the maid's black 
face. "Just a guy," I said, and went on to his room. 

* "Hi, Hoagy." Bix was lying on the bed. He looked bad, 
there was something missing, as if part of him were already in 
the dark. 

* "Hi, Bix." I sat down. I was uneasy. "How's it going, 

'Bix smiled wanly. "What are you doing?" 

* "Been listening to the Publisher's theme song: Its not 
commercial." Bix looked away and then I heard his voice. 
"Don't worry, boy, you're ... ah ... hell ,.." 

' "Get your horn out. Let's doodle a little." 
'He shook his head. "Ran into a girl the other day," Bix 
said. "She's going to fix me up in a flat out in Sunnyside." 

* "Swell, get out of this dump and you'll feel better. You 
might eat something." 

'He looked at me and the veil went from his eyes for a 
moment. "How's for bringing her over some night?" 

' "Sure, any time," I said. 

'And Bix brought the girl and came to my apartment one 
night. We didn't have a drink, we didn't talk music, and it 
soon became apparent that this girl had no idea who Bix was. 
And then the terrible thought struck me. I didn't know either.' 

From a literary point of view Carmichael made two bad 
mistakes in the construction of his short story. A best friend 
doesn't ask a languishing hero to play the trumpet at a time 



like that. The introduction of a symbolically mysterious 
woman who, like the population of Davenport, had no idea 
who Bix was, is an excellent box-office ending ruined by 
Carmichaers maddening last sentence. 

It would be too much to hope that the incidental circum- 
stances of Bix's death would be clearly defined for posterity. 
In fact the stories contradict each other so violently that to 
accept them all would be to conclude that each of the six 
Beiderbeckes the student comes to know, all died separate 
and independent deaths. For many years the stock story was 
the one about the Princeton dance date. Bix had a chill but 
went through with the gig because the promoter insisted on 
the condition that no Bix, no gig. But then, quite recently, it 
occurred to one of Bix's biographers that Princeton didn't 
run college dances in the middle of August. The story Car- 
michael once told me involved a visit to the bank, and 
sounded at least as credible as all the other tales. 

But what is more important than the actual manner in 
which Bix died is the way he behaved when he sensed he was 
about to die. And here most of the witnesses corroborate 
each other. The one thing Bix took any real interest in over 
the last months was his piano- writing. For years he had been 
pottering with some half-defined compositions which he had 
never written down and, indeed, never really finished. The 
pieces were well-known to his intimates, and the most famous 
of all, 'In a Mist', he had recorded as far back as September 

The general impression seems to have been that Bix was 
anxious to leave these miniatures behind him in some 
permanent form, and with this end in view he recruited the 
help of Whiteman's arranger, Buddy Challis. 'In a Mist' 
itself epitomizes the extraordinary conflict which raged inside 
the man. It is a bewildering amalgam of barrelhouse thump- 
ing and Debussyian subtleties which illustrates more 



pointedly than any facts or any anecdotes how the sensi- 
bilities of a jazz musician were stimulated by the impact of 
modern impressionist music. That is why Six's piano pieces 
have remained for more than thirty years what they were 
when he first conceived them, curiosities. No other jazz music- 
ian underwent Bix's musical evolution in quite the same way 
or under quite the same conditions, and the piano pieces are 
essentially a product of these factors in Bix's life. 

'In a Mist', 'Candlelight', 'In the Dark', are the most 
valuable clues we have as to what Bix would have done had 
he lived on into the era of the commercial big bands, or, more 
important, what he might have become had the campaign in 
the Davenport front parlour succeeded, had Bix never heard 
the Original Dixieland Jazz Band or the New Orleans 
Rhythm Kings. It seems at least possible that he would have 
emerged as a minor composer of some distinction, perhaps a 
creator of unconsidered trifles, but at least trifles conceived 
and written with a true musical faculty. The more one con- 
siders this possibility, and the more one remembers that for 
all his unqualified success in the jazz world, Bix gravitated 
despite himself back to the world of formal sound, the more 
one is tempted to the hair-raising conclusion that he only 
became a jazz musician at all because of the unique circum- 
stances of his life and background. Fortunately for the art of 
jazz, Bix happened to have an instinctive appreciation of the 
spirit of the music. It was this sympathetic understanding of 
an unschooled idiom, combined with his genuine musical 
endowments, which created the classic fragments bequeathed 
to us on gramophone records. 

Now there are the bare bones of the story of Bix Beider- 
becke, and their implications are patently obvious to all those 
not determined to transmute every episode of artistic activity 
into grand guignol pastiche. A natural musician with a middle- 
class background becomes declass6 through his inability to 



ignore his own powers. He drifts into an artistic cul-de-sac, 
drinks too much and dies still attempting to educate himself 
in the subtleties of a music which make the subtleties of his 
own sound gauche in the extreme. As a vehicle for fiction 
nothing more stimulating could be wished for. But what, in 
fact, did happen when the inevitable attempt was made to 
transmute Bix into fiction? 

Dorothy Baker is the least bad novelist who ever attempted 
to fictionalize the jazz life, and her Young Man With a Horn, 
the least bad jazz novel so far written. Once that has been 
acknowledged, there remains little to say of Young Man With 
a Horn which is not violently critical. In the edition of the 
novel which I first read, though not in later editions I 
possessed, there were printed on the introductory page the 
words, *A novel based on the music but not the life of Bix 
Beiderbecke'. This remarkable statement prepared me for the 
worst, and I was not disappointed. It became instantly 
apparent that the mind which conceived the novel knew 
nothing of any real significance about its hero. Bix's life and 
Bix's music were one and the same thing, no more divisible 
than Candide's disfigurements and the philosophy those 
disfigurements inspired. 

Here the novelist was presented with a ready-made theme 
of overwhelming poignancy and dramatic power. An un- 
schooled man caught up in a tremendous aesthetic experience 
his training and experience have left him woefully ill- 
equipped to control, a man who stumbles into a new kind of 
artistic activity and imposes upon it an influence as alien to it 
as his own social and racial background, a man whose sensi- 
bilities have outstripped his temperament so completely that 
in the final reckoning the man suffers complete physical and 
artistic collapse. Above all, a man whose life is utterly without 
interest the moment it is divorced from his music. 

But this evidently was too awkward a theme for Miss Baker 



to handle, or perhaps even to notice at all. What did she give 
us instead? A twaddling tale of a musician with a gift 'equal to, 
sa y oh, Bach's', who is unhappy in love and dies of dis- 
sipation. Bix was obviously the greatest white jazz musician 
Miss Baker had heard about, so she grafted on to him the hack 
figure of the artistic genius who is romantically frustrated. 

That was not all. Worse was to come, much worse. Miss 
Baker understood as little of the nature of Bix's musical 
talent as she did of the nature of his life and the real dramatic 
element in it. The romantic tragedy of his life was not con- 
tained in the kind of silly footling romance with the extra- 
ordinary Amy North whom Miss Baker dreamed up, but with 
the music itself. 

In place of Bixian subtlety we get nonsensical talk of going 
for notes so high they do not exist, '. . . at least, not on a 
trumpet', Miss Baker belonging to that layman society which 
religiously believes that ability in a jazz trumpeter is related 
directly to how high he can blow. And worst of all, instead of 
the symptomatic decline after leaving Whiteman, we get a 
deathbed scene in an ambulance of such excruciating senti- 
mentality that even Hoagy Carmichael would never have 

The extent to which Miss Baker misread the case is best 
illustrated by her manipulation of the sociological facts to 
make her hero more sympathetic to the reader. (More sympa- 
thetic than Bix Beiderbecke, if you please!) She ruthlessly 
demotes our hero in class, so that where Bix was the son of 
comfortable immigrant parents, Rick Martin is a downtrodden 
member of a shiftless proletariat with no parents, no home life, 
no help from anybody, a character to whom music is evidently 
a refuge from loneliness rather than an impulse too strong to 
resist, as it was for Bix. 

There is no mention of the middle-west, no mention of the 
European strain in the family, so vital a factor in the history 



of Bix, no mention of the unsuccessful attempt to redeem a 
lost musical situation at Iowa University. People sometimes 
suggest to me that such facts are no concern of the novelist 
bent only on portraying a fictitious character. But in the 
special case of Bix Beiderbecke the facts cannot be rejected 
because without them there would have been no hero in the 
first place. Bix was a product of the middle class and so was 
his music. The refinement and the Europeanization were no 
accidents, which is why it is courting artistic disaster to take 
Bix's musical prowess as the inspiration for a novel, and 
abandon all the contributory factors. The result will be not 
a man but a cardboard effigy propped up with a few cliches, 
which is exactly what Rick Martin turns out to be. That is 
why Bix was a fascinating man and a beguiling artist while 
Rick Martin is a silly cipher who never once gives the im- 
pression of intuitive greatness which any sketch of Bix, no 
matter how casual, ought to give. I wonder what Bix himself 
would have made of Amy North with her pathological 
jealousy, of the comically hackneyed drummer Smoke, who 
pays our hero the supreme compliment of permitting him, 
Rick, to befriend him. And above all, which particular dirty 
word would Bix have uttered when he came to that high note 

What Dorothy Baker did in fact do with Young Man With 
a Horn was to consummate, once and for all, in a permanent 
form, all the misconception, all the vulgarity, all the spurious 
romanticizing, all the distortions of the figure of Bix which 
have been so prominent a feature of jazz journalism for the 
last thirty years. Young Man With a Horn summarizes the 
whole process. It is an anthology of everything crass and 
cheapskate ever written by an outside world which lacked the 
wit and the energy to come to a true understanding of his gift 
and his dilemma. 

One can get too solicitous about Bix. He is almost too 



pathetic. He was the victim of his own artistic fecklessness, 
and even in his best jazz performances a victim of the irony 
of the jazz musician's predicament, which is that he is un- 
compromisingly individualistic and yet chained by the sheer 
mechanics of his art to the limitations of whoever he is 
obliged to play with. Perhaps that is why my favourite among 
all the Bix stories I ever read suggests that perhaps his ordeal 
was not quite so painful all of the time as writers like Miss 
Baker would have us believe. The sheer detachment of the 
man seems at times to be enviable. The bandleader Russ 
Morgan tells this story. 'I remember one time three of us 
went out to play golf early in the morning and we came across 
Bix asleep under a tree. The night before he had decided to 
play some twilight golf and had lost all his golf balls. So he 
just laid down and went to sleep. We woke him up and he 
finished the course with us.* 


'. . . Money is indeed the most important thing in the world; 

and all sound and successful personal and national morality 

should have this fact for its basis. . . / 


ONE day while talking about jazz to some students at the 
London School of Economics, I met a very earnest young 
woman who told me of her determination to compose a 
thesis involving jazz. Her chief difficulty was that she had no 
theme, and so after a brief conversation I suggested she com- 
pose a psychological history of the music. She was scandalized. 

'You speak,' she reproached me, 'as though jazz were a 
person as well as an art. How can you possibly analyse an 
abstraction as though it were flesh and blood?' 

And when I explained to her about the guilt complex 
which runs like a scarlet thread through the weave of jazz 
history, she seemed genuinely surprised. It had never 
occurred to her that a creative activity can have its complexes 
and its repressed desires as certainly as those who practise it, 
and the sudden revelation that jazz was the victim of its own 
psychological disorders was a deep shock to her. I believe she 
took my suggestion as a flippant joke, and never appeared on 
any of the future occasions on which I was invited to talk to 
the School's jazz club. 

5 1 


The subconscious awareness of jazz musicians that the art 
they practise had its beginnings in the most disreputable 
surroundings is more widespread than even the musicians 
themselves sometimes realize. A glance beneath the surface of 
Bix Beiderbecke's career reveals what dilemmas and divi- 
dends may spring from the yearning for musical legitimacy, 
but the process becomes glorious high comedy when the 
musical desire is wedded to social aspiration. That jazz music 
of all the arts should have developed bourgeois sensibilities is 
one of the most comical developments in the history of 
twentieth-century music, although when the musical results 
fall on our ears we are suddenly constrained not to laugh 
quite as loud as we might, possibly because we are yawning 

so heavily, 

Had that young lady only known it, the theme I suggested 
was rich with possibilities. She was well aware that jazz began 
as a do-it-yourself music which graduated to the brothels of 
Storyville, At the time she asked me her question she held 
two tickets to the Royal Festival Hall for the latest of Mr 
Gmz's importations. Yet she saw nothing incongruous 
enough to impel intellectual curiosity in the juxtaposition of 
brothel and concert-hall. Perhaps she did grasp it but was 
daunted by the enormity of the task. She need not have 
worried, because fortunately for us all, the process may be 
traced quite simply in an individual as well as in the art form 
generally, and the individual case has the added charm of 
being dramatic on the personal level. 

In examining the career of Benny Goodman, the most 
obvious fact to emerge is that the jazz musician, no less than 
any other creative artist, is captain of his fate only to a 
limited degree, and that there sometimes arrive junctures in 
his career when apparent irrelevancies like governmental 
economic policy, unemployment figures and patterns of 
popular education will coalesce to mould his musical style 



despite himself. Benny Goodman, who so beautifully symbol- 
izes the half-witted old Hollywood myth about the poor slum 
boy who blows hot licks and becomes a national idol ( fi But, 
poppa, I don't want to be a pants presser'), is an archetype 
because in addition to prodigious musical talent, he was sub- 
jected to a combination of economic and social circumstances 
in not quite the same way as anyone else. The imbalance 
between his talent and the forces which brought pressure to 
bear upon that talent is so exquisite as to appear too good to 
be true. The suspicion that one is reading into Goodman's 
career things which are not there, is only dispelled by the 
unshakeable evidence of Goodman's recorded work, the only 
evidence which really matters. 

Goodman's life as an influential jazz musician extended, 
very roughly, from the end of the Jazz Age to the beginning of 
of the New Modernism, say from 1928 to about 1943, and it 
is doubtful whether in a comparable fifteen-year period, any 
sphere of artistic activity has seen such bewildering, hysterical 
changes. It is literally true to say that a jazzlover who heard 
Bix's 'Singing the Blues', then went into a monastery, stayed 
there till the death of Roosevelt, and then came out to hear 
Charlie Parker's 'Anthropology' would have real difficulty 
recognizing any relationship between the two recordings. The 
period between the two saw jazz move from simplicity of 
conception to complexity, from unselfconscious ease to high 
sophistication, and it is a diverting spectacle to watch Good- 
man moving forward hardly at all, beginning the period as an 
advanced spirit and ending it as a petulant last-ditch re- 
actionary, playing the same music all the time. 

Not that Goodman can really be blamed for standing still 
for fifteen years. Some of his outbursts against the modernists 
were a little too apoplectic to merit serious consideration, but 
if Goodman moved forward so little, he moved as far forward 
as most of his contemporaries. It is true that jazz evolves from 



one style to another, each more complex harmonically than 
the last, but its individual musicians cannot possibly keep up 
with the process, wherein lies their tragedy. This is a truth 
which all but the musicians themselves seem to overlook. 
Once a musician matures he is straddled for the rest of his 
life with the nuances of his formative period. That is why at 
the advent of modernism Benny Carter was braver than 
Johnny Hodges, and Hodges wiser than Carter. The fact that 
though an art form evolves, its practitioners may not, is one 
which applies particularly to Goodman because by the time 
Charlie Parker suddenly began extending the harmonic range 
of the jazz solo, Goodman had long since become a walking 
anthology of all the mannerisms of the previous fifteen years. 
Looking back at it, we can see that when we hoped years ago 
that perhaps Goodman's scholastic quartets, evolving slowly 
into the stylized sextets, were the beginning of something, we 
were misreading the evidence, that really Goodman was the 
exact opposite, the end of something, a fulfilment, a culmina- 
tion, the sum total of his own past. 

Now there are certain truisms about Goodman's talent 
which are often overlooked, hardly surprising in view of the 
fact that to the purist Goodman's apparent lack of profes- 
sional dignity and his obsessive trick of making money, must 
seem like the work of the devil. But this does not alter the 
case of Goodman's musical endowment. First, he always had 
a firm grasp of the principles of hot clarinet playing. He was 
an intuitive jazz musician, and the red herring of his effortless 
technique should never be permitted to obscure the fact. He 
may never have lost his mind, like Rapollo, or suffered a 
mdodraraatic death, like Teschmaker, or appealed to the 
amateur musicologist with the crude excesses of his own style, 
like Johnny Dodds, but strictly musically, Goodman's was a 
beautiful talent Second, he had the kind of nimble mind 
which can assimilate and correlate the climate of its own 



environment so well that in time its owner becomes symbolic 
of that period without necessarily having contributed any- 
thing very original towards it. Third, Goodman, once he 
grew to manhood, never believed that the world of music 
could be contained within a jazz ensemble. Fourth, he had a 
degree of aptitude for the mechanics of clarinet playing which 
only occurs a few times in each generation. And, fifth, he was 
both astute and lucky. 

But Goodman, when he first began to make an impression 
on the jazz world, was still literally a boy. The technical 
devotion had not yet asserted itself, and his life was still 
virtually the jazz life. According to Goodman's own reflec- 
tions, it was not till 1932 that he began to concentrate on 
perfecting his technique, and the reasons he gives are most 
revealing. He says that he realized that a musician who could 
read and execute any musical score would stand the best 
chance 'of riding out the worsening depression*. Goodman 
was twenty-two years old when he arrived at that conclusion, 
and it makes a quaint contrast with the attitude towards jazz 
and survival of some of his more picaresque contemporaries. 
The mere thought of somebody like Bix or Muggsy Spanier 
sitting down to work out how best to 'ride out the worsening 
depression' is enough to stress the fundamental difference 
between Goodman and all the other Chicagoans of the 
period. It was no accident that it was Goodman and not Pee- 
Wee Russell or Jack Teagarden or Eddie Condon who became 
a brand image and a national effigy a year or two later. 

As the years passed, Goodman's technique loomed krger 
and larger, until by the time I became a young musician 
during the war, he was our trump card in all arguments con- 
cerning the illiteracy of the jazz musician. *Look at Benny 
Goodman,' we would say. 'He plays Mozart, doesn't he?' the 
speaker never having heard anything by Mozart in his life. 
And of course it was true. The retort was unanswerable. 



Goodman was a superlative musician even by the most 
rigorous conservatoire standards, a very convenient thing for 
those suffering from an inferiority complex as to the cultural 
bona fides of jazz music. Francis Newton has very percep- 
tively written of generations of jazzlovers who have grown up 
'to repeat the same rare crumbs of praise for jazz by classical 
musicians (first or second-rate) and to hail with touching 
gratitude the occasional recognition of jazz by the Third 
Programme of the B.B.C. or similar established cultural 
institutions'. Goodman was the most effective bribe which 
jazz had to offer the musical Establishment. 

It was inevitable. Technique, as it begins to amass, will 
demand problems to solve. It will fret at the absence of con- 
stant challenge, like a medieval knight steadily running out of 
opponents to vanquish. It was inconceivable that Goodman, 
as he moved relentlessly forward to complete mastery over 
the clarinet keyboard, should be satisfied with 'Royal Garden 
Blues' and *I Got Rhythm', which is how curiosities like 
'Clarinet & la 'King' and 'Caprice Paganini' happened. 

This progress of Goodman's towards complete technical 
domination was something more superficial than and quite 
divorced from Bix Beiderbecke's yearning to plumb the in- 
nermost depths of music. Goodman's infatuation was 
primarily an infatuation with the co-ordination of mind and 
fingers rather than the creative process itself. But before he 
emerged into middle-age with his dreamed-of mastery, a 
million dollars and a jazz spirit that had run dry, he produced 
some classic jazz recordings, leaving the analysts with a far 
simpler task than they might otherwise have inherited. 
Goodman is one of the most convenient figures on the jazz 
landscape. He is a long addition sum, neatly and impeccably 
worked out pat. 


The mechanics of the Chicago clarinet style are rudimentary 
only if one defines them in the language of musical grammar. 
The technical function may be described in a sentence or two, 
and may be learned thoroughly by any competent instru- 
mentalist. It is in its maddeningly elusive spirit that the style 
becomes something which few players ever really master, for 
the clarinet in a Chicago ensemble has to create a great deal 
out of practically nothing at all. 

The music the Chicagoans played at the time Goodman was 
emerging from the status of teenage wonder to that of adult 
virtuoso was not as naive as it sounded at first hearing. It was 
the jazz art poised between the ensemble textures of New 
Orleans and the subjective brilliance of the Swing Age. The 
concentration on ensemble had inevitably to be superseded 
one day, so soon as the individual musician had developed his 
technique to the point where only a solo could gratify the 
creative impulse. The virtuosity of a Louis Armstrong had by 
its very nature to shatter the classic New Orleans ensemble 
form that had nurtured it, bringing jazz to the stage where the 
individual voice became dominant over the collective con- 

With the Chicagoans, a compromise had been reached. 
The ensemble had by no means been dispensed with. Indeed 
the all-in last chorus still represented the climactic peak of the 
performance. But before it happened, the soloists had their 
say. The tunes of the day were still simple harmonically, but 
not so simple as they had been ten years before. The role of 
the clarinet was nebulous, for he had to weave contrapuntal 
patterns without ever being quite sure what he was weaving 
a counterpoint against. He knew he had to move about the 
harmonies, but he also knew that he had to avoid clashes with 
the trumpet and trombone. He had to have a nimble mind as 
well as nimble fingers. He had almost intuitively to arrive at 
the right cadence at the right moment in the right way, and 



always he had to pay deference to the leadership of the 

In the tense and jagged voice of Frank Teschmaker could 
be noted some of the better qualities as well as some of the 
worst of Chicago clarinet playing. There was a disturbing 
urgency about Teschmaker which still makes the listener 
wonder whether Teschmaker was enjoying himself quite as 
much as a jazz musician is supposed to. And Teschmaker had 
a curiosity about the mysteries of music. He wondered about 
instrumental voicings and tried to make primitive orchestra- 
tions fit into an improvised framework. But he was a little too 
wild, even for the turbulence of his era. His intonation was 
unreliable and there were times when the music seemed to be 
running away with him, like a dog who takes his master for 
a walk. 

Jimmy Dorsey, who once shared a room with Goodman, 
and who conducted a friendly rivalry when they used the 
same telephone number, was ingenious rather than inspired, 
and there were irritating lapses in his playing which often 
sounded like lapses of concentration, as in that painful 
moment in the Bix-Trumbauer 'Singing the Blues' when the 
ensemble falters as for a split second it is deprived of the 
support of Bix's benign lead. 

Of course there was Pee- Wee Russell, but Pee-Wee was an 
eccentric, a special case, an intuitive accident, somebody who 
would never really develop because the style, with its 
quaverings and its falterings, its uncertainties and its last- 
second recoveries from imminent disaster, was the man- 
Nobody could ever learn to play like Pee-Wee Russell with- 
out actually being Pee-Wee Russell. Even then it could be 

There are two other clarinettists one often thinks of in 
connection with Goodman and his early days; Buster Bailey 
and Jimmy Noone. Bailey is said to have studied under the 



same teacher as Goodman, but despite an apparent mutual 
admiration, there is all the world of difference between them. 
Bailey, with his even quavers and the unsyncopated nature 
of his whole aesthetic, is the very antithesis of the limpid 
flow of Goodman in his prime, and it may be said that Bailey, 
who always had more than enough technique to manage, 
never really sounded as though he was wholly convinced 
about jazz. 

Jimmy Noone is a different case. His liquidity and poise 
certainly find echoes in the early Goodman, and many 
musicians who know the facts of the case have testified to the 
connection between the two players. Coleman Hawkins 
rightly asserts that the similarities are so marked that *you 
can't miss them in Benny's playing'. It seems clear what it 
was about Noone that appealed to Goodman so strongly. 
Noone had a fluency about his jazz which made, say, a 
Teschmaker or a Dorsey sound clumsy. For a man with 
Goodman's kind of ambition, Noone's playing must have 
been a distinct challenge. But what later emerged as the 
authentic Benny Goodman style was not really as gracious 
and refined a jazz as Noone's. Goodman possessed more 
aggression. Perhaps it would be juster to say Goodman 
chose to use more aggression. And it is the patterns he wove 
which make him distinctive, patterns of literacy which 
separate him from Noone, Bailey, Dorsey, Dodds, every 
clarinettist of the day. 

Benny Goodman made his first record with Ben Pollack in 
1926. He was seventeen years old, and as the recordings of 
the period tell us, already possessed of great assurance and 
imagination. On the Pollack recording of 'He's the Last 
Word', for instance, on the third recording session of his life, 
Goodman is already suggesting in a vague kind of way the 
shape of things to come, and in * Waiting for Katie', a few years 
later, there is even a hint of the later assurance of the trios. 



Legitimate mastery still lay far ahead, and on a 1929 record- 
ing of the composition Goodman wrote in collaboration with 
Bud Freeman, 'After Awhile', he executes some trills 
clumsily enough to make the listener raise his eyebrows in 
surprise that even an immature Goodman could have done 
such a thing. In all this early work, for all its occasional 
gauckme, the playing bears the hallmark of an unusual 
talent. By the time he was twenty, the conventions of the 
Chicago style must have seemed child's play. 

When the Charleston Chasers made 'Basin Street Blues' in 
1931, Goodman took two solos, one on a conventional twelve 
bar blues sequence, the other based on the chords of the tune 
itself, and the second solo reflects fairly clearly the preference 
for a chord sequence more complex and technically more 
demanding than the blues. Throughout his career, Good- 
man's blues lacked the content one might have expected from 
a player of his stature. Too often the emotional residue is 
reduced to nil and the entire chorus seems to consist of 
simulated wailings founded on a base of the flattened third 
and dominant seventh, the notorious 'blue notes' that George 
Gershwin used to react to rather as if they were his own 
single-handed discovery. Goodman seems to have been one 
of those highly literate jazzmen who feel most comfortable 
meeting the challenge of a chord sequence rather more 
specific than the blues. No wonder Charlie Parker sounded so 
anarchic to him fifteen years later, for Parker exemplified the 
intuitive genius, a figure by no means sympathetic with 
Goodman's method. 

Before the hiatus of 1932 Goodman made several records 
with his one-time idol and model, Ted Lewis, whose ethics 
seem to have been as questionable as his musical ability. One 
of the prize comedy moments in jazz occurs on a recording 
called *Ho Hum', because in it is implied all the contempt the 
professional musician can feel for the entire outside world, 



and his ruthlessness if he happens to be a bandleader with an 
instrumental vanity his personal ability is not able to assuage. 

Ted Lewis was one of the monstrosities of popular music, 
and from the outlook of a jazzlover, his clarinet playing 
hovers drunkenly between tragedy and comedy. Nobody with 
any sensibility could ever conceivably take Lewis halfway 
seriously. And yet inside Lewis's own head must have resided 
the astonishing idea that although Goodman was superior 
enough to him to merit a little barefaced artistic duplicity, he 
was not so much better that the duplicity would be detected. 
And so, on 'Ho Hum', while Goodman plays a solo that 
nobody else of the period could possibly have played, a solo 
which screams out Benny Goodman with every nuance, an 
anonymous voice, perhaps Lewis's, shouts the encourage- 
ment, 'Blow it, Ted'. Whether this kind of counterfeit was 
poetic justice for Lewis after the way Goodman had started his 
own career with an impersonation of Lewis, nobody can say, 
but if it was, and if it levelled the score for a while, it was only 
a temporary triumph for Lewis. Goodman had the last word, 
as usual, at Carnegie Hall of all places, as we shall see. 

In 1932 Goodman came to terms with the demands of his 
own ambition. He started to mix economics with art. Perhaps 
if the Great Depression had not scared him into building up a 
bulwark of technique between him and the exigencies of a 
precarious profession, something else might have, but signifi- 
cantly it was the economic factor which inspired Goodman 
to the chase which led in the end to the acceptance of jazz as a 
commodity in the markets of monopoly. 

In the pre-1932 recordings there is a rough edge to his 
playing. It is not a rough edge with a menace, nor is it the 
musical expression of some personal vagary of temperament, 
as with Pee-Wee Russell, but rather the slight croak of an 
accomplished musician creating a special effect. It is hardly 
the kind of growl which comes to dominate an entire style, 



and as the years passed it became more and more incongru- 
ous, until when Goodman resorted to it in the late 19305 it 
became a little embarrassing, like a middle-aged aunt 
demonstrating how she used to do the Charleston. In 'Heat 
Wave', recorded with Ethel Waters in 1933, the tone is 
already noticeably purer. It becomes easier every year to 
chart the growing influence of classical studies on what started 
as a natural jazz talent. In the same year, in 'I Got a Right to 
Sing the Blues', recorded with his own band, the croak and 
the scholasticism begin to make strange bed-fellows. 

In the famous recording of <Dr Heckle and Mr Jibe', the 
phrase Goodman plays on the last eight of the first chorus is 
typical of this new instrumental command he is carving out 
for himself. The presence of Jack Teagarden affords a con- 
venient contrast. While Goodman is still noticeably evolving, 
moving forward relentlessly to some mysterious ideal of per- 
fection, Teagarden is completely poised and quite mature, 
his style a perfectly formed jewel with nothing left to iron out 
or smooth away. The born jazzman, in fact, to whom a 
spirited improvisation is so inherent an act that a campaign 
like Goodman's would seem antipathetic and quite unneces- 
sary. And yet a man who would instantly appreciate the 
exultation in his own fluency which Goodman shows as he 
skips blithely through what must have been for the times a 
tricky sequence in the middle eight. 

By 1934 the world of the Chicagoans was already receding 
rapidly into jazz history, but before it ceased to be representa- 
tive of the advance guard, Goodman made some classic 
recordings which still represent some of the best clarinet 
playing achieved in that idiom, The Venuti-Lang session of 
1932 was a consummation of all the striving of the previous 
few years. Venuti and Lang, the Teagarden brothers and 
Goodman himself were among the finest exponents of the 
style. Goodman's playing on all four tracks is in a class 



beyond that of any of his rivals. In later years he was to use 
the nimble harmonies of 'After You've Gone* as an up- 
tempo revelation of supreme technical command, but on the 
Venuti-Lang session they took the tune at half tempo, one 
which always brought out the richness of its harmonic 

Goodman's best work on the session comes in 'Someday, 
Sweetheart', which opens with two clarinet cadenzas, almost 
laughably appropriate indications of the way Goodman's 
mind was beginning to work in its new attitude towards 
instrumental mastery. The same technical display tends to 
mar the symmetry of Goodman's solo over the last four bars, 
but until then the clarinet playing contains all the virtues of 
the Chicago style. His entry makes an interesting contrast 
with the entries Lester Young was to indulge in a year or two 
later. Lester would often enter with a succession of crotchets 
placed meticulously on the beat, and the effect would be a 
natural statement of the rhythmic pulse of the performance. 
In his entry to 'Someday, Sweetheart', Goodman chooses 
three crotchets, but just as meticulously syncopated, so that 
the melodic invention that follows is given the benefit of an 
effective push from behind. 

At first he is content to state the theme, possibly because 
the melody of 'Someday, Sweetheart', has a pleasant senti- 
mental air about it. But in the third and fourth bars comes 
the first evidence of Goodman's great gift of creating melody 
of his own, related to the written tune but superior to it. This 
first truly improvised phrase is a confident lyric gesture on 
which the solo takes wings. Its beauty is its apparent sim- 
plicity, a fact underlined by the flurry of double-tempo notes 
following. For a bar or two the soloist is thinking in terms of 
the implied faster tempo which became such a commonplace 
in jazz ten years later, although the actual harmonies he uses 
are chained to the diatonic conception of the period. Later, 



in the tenth bar, he resorts to a pattern of time values which 
many years later Stan Getz was to re-echo in a whole string 
of recordings, a pattern of repeated notes, so that each 
tonality is sounded twice. It is after this that the solo tends 
to disintegrate in the face of would-be classical runs, but for 
all that the performance is a brilliant and highly evocative 
piece of jazz romanticism, proceeding from phrase to phrase 
with the kind of assurance which stamps Goodman un- 
mistakably as a great jazz musician. Most interesting of all, 
it is a fragment which could never have been achieved but 
for its executant's attention to the criteria of Klose and 

The great days of the Chicago style, the days when the 
legends accumulated and the swollen reputations were won 
for all time, were already drawing to a close when the 
Venuti-Lang sides were made. Some of the best Chicago 
performances were recorded at a much later date. But at the 
time Muggsy Spanier and Bud Freeman recorded their 
repertoire, Chicago jazz performances had become what they 
have been ever since, deliberate revivals, calculated glances 
over the shoulder at a musical era already passe. If by 1932 
the corpse was already stiffening, Goodman did more than 
any other musician three years later to cause an irrevocable 

The events of 1935 may be explained by many factors and 
endless permutations of those factors, but one fact that is 
quite indisputable is that there had to be a Benny Goodman. 
His name might have been any one of half a dozen of his 
contemporaries, Tommy Dorsey or Jack Teagarden, Jimmy 
Dorsey or Glenn Miller, Joe Venuti or Bud Freeman, but 
whoefver it was, there had to be a symbolic figure, the 
materialization of the American Dream in the form of a 



bandleader, and the fact that it happened to be Benny Good- 
man is the most fascinating single thing about him. 

By 1935 the pattern of jazz was changing. The repeal of 
Prohibition had speeded the end of the era which nurtured 
the Chicagoans and their brash music. It is at least a reason- 
able hypothesis that jazz might then have slowly curled up 
and died away. Either it would do something like that, now 
it was passe as the incidental music to the manufacture of 
bootleg liquor, or else it had to make the giant step and 
become respectable, commercial, accepted by the bourgeoisie. 
It had to find a new audience, a wider one, formed of those 
who respected the letter of the law rather more closely than 
any of its predecessors. 

It is now, with the advent of a fresh prototype, the Famous 
Bandleader, that economics and art, profit and psychology, 
hot jazz and guilt motives become indivisible. Jazz was about 
to take its most significant stride away from the Storyville 
legend. It was about to capture the middle-class adolescent 
heart. And it did so through the agency of a musician who 
had, three years before, amended his practice routine to 
dovetail with the national unemployment figures. Goodman 
came along with his organized mind just at the time when the 
United States was poised on the brink of its recovery from the 
imbecilities of the Coolidge regime. At this distance of time 
it seems only natural that jazz, too, should have procured for 
itself a New Deal. 

The large orchestra was by no means unknown to the jazz 
musician. It is often overlooked that when Goodman became 
the King of Swing he was not the first monarch of the realm. 
Long before him Paul Whiteman had waggled a fatuous 
baton in the faces of Bix and Teagarden and the rest of them. 
But Whiteman's way of selling jazz to the masses was to 
drain all the blood away first. Had it not been for Bix none 
of Whiteman's recordings would today be worth the wax it 



was pressed on. His was a big band, certainly, but it was more 
than that. It was a huge band, a vast band, a cumbersome 
band, a lumbering elephantine band whose leader was 
apparently never aware of the beautiful parody of the real 
thing he was creating. Besides, Whiteman was comfortably 
plump, reassuringly middle-aged. This was the new era of 
the Proletarian Ideal, and Whiteman looked too much like 
a stockbroker to be accepted by the New Youth. Whiteman 
was, in a word, pass<, no less than bathtub gin and the 

There were other big bands, far better than Whiteman had 
ever dreamed of, but they consisted of musicians with the 
wrong pigmentation for national acceptance. The fact that 
they were always better than any orchestra Goodman ever 
led, that they included in their ranks musicians with whom 
most of Goodman's sidemen do not bear comparison, is a fact 
which must always be kept very firmly in the foreground of 
any history of the Swing Age. The Benny Goodman band 
was never at any time the best band in jazz. It is debatable 
whether it was ever one of the best three. It just happened to 
be the best of those that were exploitable on a national scale. 

One assumes that Goodman was at the time far too shrewd 
an assessor of jazz quality not to have been aware of the fact, 
and his actions on one or two occasions seem to prove that he 
knew where the true inspiration lay. There is a certain 
admirable ruthlessness about those actions which typify 
Goodman's single-mindedness at the time. It must have 
required considerable courage to carry a coloured musician 
on tour with the orchestra, but once Goodman had played 
with Teddy Wilson there was never any doubt in his mind 
that Wilson would have to become part of the Goodman act. 
Even shrewder was the strategy he deployed when first 
forming his band. 

Long before Goodman had ever thought of forming his 



own orchestra, back in the Ben Pollock days, the Fletcher 
Henderson band had been at its zenith. It was infinitely the 
most skilled large unit of its day, including in its ranks some 
of the most brilliant jazz musicians of all time. Henderson, a 
moderate pianist, happened to be an outstanding orches- 
trator, that is if he is measured against the prevailing environ- 
ment of the late 19205. He was one of the first men to conceive 
the idea of using sections of instruments instead of individuals 
to provide a background for soloists as well as to create an 
integrated orchestral effect, His writing was skilled but 
relatively simple in phraseology. Many of his written section 
figures were no more than a kind of individual riff which 
might occur in a more casual performance, except that 
Henderson was able to increase their power by using three or 
four voices in unison, or harmonizing the rhythmic phrase he 
had hit upon. As for the ensemble, the ideal was to get several 
men playing the melody with the same expression and 
inflexions that a soloist might use. 

The territory Henderson explored contains more bear- 
traps than any in the world of jazz. All the orchestral 
ingenuity in the world cannot justify the loss of rhythmic 
spirit in a jazz performance. Unfortunately the temptation to 
create sumptuous orchestral sounds within the jazz frame 
almost always results in the dissipation of the jazz itself. 
Henderson, keeping his effects fairly simple, was one of the 
very few jazz musicians who committed his choruses to 
manuscript without stabbing them to death with the end of 
his pen nib. Apart from Duke Ellington, who, for a thousand 
obvious reasons was unavailable to Goodman, Henderson 
was the natural choice for anyone who desired to form a band 
playing orchestrations without sounding too cumbersome, 
like Whiteman's, or too effete, like the spineless meanderings 
of bands like the Casa Loma. 

Henderson's band had died of natural causes in 1934, when 


the entire personnel had handed in notice en bloc, rather than 
see Henderson struggling desperately to hold together an 
organization for which there was not enough work to exist. 
Goodman's decision to form a large unit so shortly after the 
end of the great days of the Fletcher Henderson band was 
one of the happiest accidents in the entire Goodman story. 

One fact about Goodman and his first band which is too 
easily overlooked is that in the beginning the whole episode 
was a huge accident, not some diabolical plot. Goodman had 
no more idea than anyone else that a wide public existed for 
jazz. In the beginning the musicians he gathered about him 
were concerned only with playing something fresh, some- 
thing they might enjoy. It just happened that in indulging 
this whim, Goodman was the first man to stumble on to the 
gold-mine destined to yield such rich profits for years to 

The number of factors which might be reasonably listed in 
explanation of Goodman's frightening breakthrough at the 
Palomar Ballroom are endless and bafflingly varied, from 
the birth of Marconi to the teaming of Fred Astaire with 
Ginger Rogers. The truth Goodman half-discovered at the 
Palomar was that the entire continent was full of young 
people who enjoyed dancing to jazz enough to pay for the 
privilege. Even then the enormity of his discovery does not 
seem to have hit him hard enough to convince him fully. It 
was not till the second great day in history of his social- 
economic triumph (there were three altogether, the Palomar, 
the Paramount and Carnegie Hall) in March 1937 that it 
dawned upon him that the city gates were wide open and the 
treasury undefended. 

It is impossible to say precisely when the Goodman band 
stopped being a select club for musicians to enjoy themselves 
and changed into a corporation producing a commodity for 
mass consumption, but the process of change was a very 



gradual one and only became really obvious after some years 
of popular triumph. Had the big band been all that came out 
of the Goodman Era, history might be inclined to dismiss it 
with an indulgent shrug of the shoulders. After all, nothing 
the Goodman band played ever had half the musical content 
of the Ellington band of the same period. Certainly the Basie 
band was superior to Goodman's in all departments except 
clarinet playing. A good case could be made out to prove the 
superiority of bands like those of Chick Webb and Jimmy 
Lunceford, and although the Goodman band recordings still 
possess an engaging bounce, their chief importance today is 
as the secondary musical result of an accidental economic 

It is in one of Goodman's gimmicks that the true import- 
ance lies. The band-within-a-band idea has obvious attrac- 
tions for the booker, the fan and the leader, all of whom 
believe they are getting two bands for the price of one. 
Indeed, in a few exceptional cases that is exactly what they 
are getting. Although there are instances of leaders before 
Goodman featuring smaller groups from time to time, no- 
body had actually made one of these splinter groups an added 
attraction to the full orchestra. It is clear today that the Benny 
Goodman Trio, and later the Quartet, were Goodman's 
artistic relief from the rigours of leading a large dance 
orchestra. The group-within-a-group conception was a 
safety-valve for musicians subjecting themselves to a more 
rigorous professional discipline than they had ever known 
before and soon found to be excruciatingly boring. 

Without any question the Goodman small groups are a 
milestone in jazz history because they were an acknowledg- 
ment of the further advance of that instrumental virtuosity 
which had been gathering ever since jazz started to advance 
north. In Goodman jazz possessed for the first time a man 
with all the attributes needed for expressing this advance in 



popular terms. He was young enough and white enough and 
proletarian enough in his origins to appeal to a large enough 
mass of paying customers. And, vitally important, he pos- 
sessed what was by now one of the most dazzling instrumental 
techniques in the history of jazz. 

It was inevitable that Goodman in reverting to a trio, 
should produce some kind of paraphrase of the Chicago style 
on which he had been raised. No jazz musician ever learns 
more than one style or school of jazz effectively, no matter 
how determined he may be to stay modern. Goodman was 
one of the Chicagoans before he ever heard of Teddy Wilson 
or Lionel Hampton, He remained a Chicagoan throughout 
the great commercial triumphs of the late 19308, and he 
remains one today, Mozart or no. The trios and quartets are 
the Chicago clarinet style reduced to its absolute bare 
essentials, played on one front line instrument instead of 
forming part of an ensemble of three. The style is partially 
disguised with the gloss of a technical command and sophisti- 
cation of thought that would have raised the hairs on the 
back of Frank Teschmaker's neck. But the Trios and 
Quartets are products of the Chicago style for all that, and 
ought to be approached from that standpoint if they are to be 
understood fully. 

The Chicago clarinettist had always to be master of what 
for lack of a more academically correct term, might be called 
intuitive counterpoint. He had been obliged to work in a 
harmonic frame that was not simple to the point of despair 
but was yet simple enough to demand real creative ingenuity 
from the player. The melody was something the clarinet 
rarely had to play. In fact his whole justification for being 
alive consisted in his ability to weave complementary patterns 
around that melody. Either he could festoon the trumpet 
line with engaging melodic garlands or else there was no 
point in his presence on the stand at all. It accidentally turned 



out to be the best school in the world for a musician who 
might one day aspire to the heights of the trios and quartets. 

Had Goodman been satisfied artistically with his orchestra, 
probably he would never have indulged in the vanity of the 
small groups at all. In the trio form he found at last the ideal 
working frame for his talent. Never before or after was his 
musical personality so perfectly suited to the medium in 
which it expressed itself. The trio needed no Fletcher 
Hendersons to plan the strategy. It could make the same 
repertoire sound different every time it was used, and it could 
play unadulterated jazz whenever it chose. It might play any- 
thing Goodman cared to think up. The orchestra was taking 
care of the Hit Parade, often actually creating it, leaving the 
trio free to indulge its own fancies and, what was more 
important, make demands on the leader's virtuosity where 
the full orchestra could offer little more than mere technical 
dexterity. The Trio was the most inspired musical thought 
Benny Goodman ever had. 

Its formula was as simple as its instrumentation. A piano 
introduction, a fairly faithful statement of the theme on 
clarinet, a series of improvised solos and a final ride-out 
chorus in the true Chicagoan tradition. Now and again they 
might tinker with the written chord sequence, as in 'Lady 
Be Good", when they uprooted the theme and transplanted it 
in the harmonic minor. Or they might play an original, like 
the wittily conceived 'Opus a Half' and 'Opus Three- 
Quarters'. But the whole point about the Goodman small 
groups is that the bulk of their output adhered as strictly 
to the written harmonic pattern, and was markedly similar 
in the nature of its repertoire, as the Chicago ensembles had 
been a few years before. The result of this combination of 
circumstances was that Benny Goodman, with his jazz 
experience, his instrumental mastery and his nimble mind, 
produced a summation of the entire musical environment 



which had first nurtured him. In his small group recordings 
he pursued the Chicago style to its absolute limits, stretched 
existing harmonic conventions to what seemed like their 
ultimate, snatched for the soloist a kind of concentrated 
attention he had never possessed before, and suggested for 
the first time that deliberate stylization might have charms to 
compensate for the aggressive carelessness of the jazz of a few 
years before. 

This comprehensive grasp of Goodman's of what the 
clarinet had been doing in jazz for the past twenty years 
might be said in the long run to have killed the instrument 
stone dead. When Modernism finally swept away the relics 
of the 19305, its practitioners very soon discovered that for 
their purposes there was something very seriously wrong 
with the clarinet. This peculiar fact has never been explained 
very satisfactorily. Certainly the inflexibility of pitch of the 
notes in the lower reaches of the clarinet's register was no 
encouragement. It is also true that the considerable com- 
plexities of modernism in its execution reach daunting pro- 
portions when allied to the tortuous fingerings of the 
clarinet keyboard. There was no doubt that the instrument 
sounded woefully incongrous in a bebop setting. 

The result has been an almost total eclipse of the instru- 
ment in modern jazz. Nobody pretends that Buddy de 
Franco, for all his phenomenal technique, has a tithe of the 
significance of a Rollins or a Miles Davis, or even of a Getz 
or a Sims. Leaving aside the ineptitude, shocking in its 
arrogance of players like Tony Scott, there remain only the 
Goodman imitators, a few veterans like Edmund Hall and 
Pee-Wee Russell, and Jimmie Hamilton, a curious case who 
shows the influence both of Goodman and his only serious 
rival in the Musical Matinee Idol Stakes during the heyday 
of Swing, Artie Shaw. No young musician today thinks of 
becoming a modern musician through the medium of the 



clarinet, and the reason may not altogether be one of tone or 

In the 19305 Goodman stamped upon the instrument he 
played a conception so irresistible and so absolute that it has 
conditioned jazz thought ever since. When people claim the 
clarinet is not suited to the movements of modernism, what 
many of them really mean is that these movements are anti- 
pathetic to the clarinet style which Goodman consummated 
and made world-wide. His success, both artistically and 
economically, was too overwhelming to be forgotten. The 
natural parry to this theoretical thrust is the one involving 
Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Nobody made his 
influence felt in jazz more than Louis Armstrong, and yet in 
time Gillespie came along to overthrow every one of the 
canons of style laid down in Armstrong's trumpet playing. 
The difference is this. Armstrong achieved his dominance on 
an actual, whole, independent musical instrument. Benny 
Goodman did not, for so far as jazz music is concerned, the 
clarinet is not really a separate independent instrument at all. 
It is a first-cousin to the saxophone, although admittedly this 
relationship is a reversal of the historical facts. 

No musician ever becomes technically very proficient on 
the clarinet without also becoming a reasonable saxophonist 
in the process. The reason for the spectacular role of the 
clarinet in the early days of jazz is that its tonal properties and 
the range of its upper register made it the ideal upper voice in 
the three-man ensembles of New Orleans. A saxophone would 
have been drowned in a sea of strident decibels, so the clarinet 
was literally indispensable. As soon as the ensemble con- 
ception was discarded, as it was in time through the virtu- 
osity of Armstrong, then the clarinet was doomed to at least 
partial eclipse. Before that eclipse came, Goodman syn- 
thesized the whole process so completely that the eclipse 
itself became more marked than ever. And because the 



ensemble demand has vanished with the Golden Age of the 
improvised ensemble, and because also of the convenience of 
closed pads and the suitability of its tone, most men will 
prefer a saxophone when the choice has to be made. For these 
reasons it seems most unlikely that anybody else will ever 
leave a body of recorded clarinet jazz to challenge the 
coherence and comprehensiveness of the Goodman small 
groups. There will be no clarinettist to play Parker to Good- 
man's Hodges, or Gillespie to his Armstrong. However well 
any future jazz clarinettist may play, we will always wonder 
why he didn't play a saxophone instead, especially if, like 
Jimmy Hamilton, he gets closer to the spirit of jazz on the 
heavier instrument. 

When Goodman made those recordings, the rules of jazz 
were very clear-cut. Harmonies always resolved in a certain 
way, which is why the cadences of the period are so instantly 
recognizable. The chord of the seventh moved with a com- 
forting inevitability on to the chord with its root an interval 
of a fourth away. The diminished chord was a pleasant little 
extravagance, a baroque gesture that apparently resolved 
nowhere at all in many cases, few soloists having appreciated 
at the time that the chord of the diminished seventh is really 
only the same old dominant seventh chord with a minor 
ninth perched on its head and its root chopped away. 

There was, in fact, a classically rigid framework within 
which men like Goodman had to work. To the musician bred 
on the subtleties of Parker and his generation, the diatonic 
laws of Goodman's day seem merely the result of a few hours 
study; the naturally endowed musician might even master 
them with no theoretical knowledge at all, relying on the 
sensibilities of a refined ear to guide him home. Goodman's 
supreme virtue was that despite the simplicity of the harmonic 
rules, he always displayed a delightful ingenuity in the way he 
threaded the harmonies together, an ingenuity which at 



certain peak moments became transmuted into real inspira- 

The session with the Venuti-Lang group is one example, 
and in the trios and quartets he rose to the occasion time and 
again. All the very greatest jazz solos are wrought so artistic- 
ally that the harmonic frame on which they are suspended 
becomes camouflaged by the continuity and the relevance of 
the solo both to itself and the theme which inspired it* It is 
this sense of form, this cloaking of the skeleton of the 
harmonic frame with the flesh of artistic invention which is 
the rarest and most significant possession of any jazz 
musician, and it is the reason why the greatness of a solo never 
at any time depends merely on the degree of modernity or 
reaction of its harmonic foundation. 

The best of the clarinet solos with the trio and quartet 
stand as homilies in the art of the jazz solo. In recordings like 
'S'Wonderful*, the first 'After You've Gone', 'I Cried for 
You', 'Sweet Georgia Brown', Goodman achieved the ulti- 
mate consummation of the style he had first begun to digest 
in the Ben Pollock days and earlier. Many of his phrases in 
these small group recordings would not be out of place in a 
Chicago ensemble, except that now they are being executed 
with a confidence and urbanity that the Teschmakers and 
Russells had never dreamed of, and, let it be admitted, 
perhaps never really desired. 

By now the classical influences Goodman had brought to 
bear on his style had merged exquisitely with his natural jazz 
flair. He could now play anything his mind conceived. The 
long succession of small group recordings is remarkable for 
its technical intricacy and lack of any technical blemish. The 
same is true, of course, of the clarinet solos with the big band, 
but in the smaller unit Goodman had created the open spaces 
in which to move, sweeping aside all the distractions of 
orchestration and section figures which so often stand like 



clumsy signposts guiding the soloist towards the obvious. In 
the trio it was Goodman's inventive power and musical wit 

against the gods. 

His integration of the diminished chord in the third and 
fourth bars of C S Wonderful' into the harmonic frame of the 
eight-bar phrase, the reshaping of the eight bars which open 
the second half of 'Sweet Sue', the fire and originality of the 
phrase based on the dominant seventh chord occurring at the 
juncture in 'I Cried for You' where the lyric says 'has a 
turning', all these remembered fragments from twenty years 
of listening suggest a jazz talent of the very highest class. 

Running concurrently with this long succession of record- 
ings with his own groups, the Goodman discography reveals 
another, completely independent series, likely to be for- 
gotten, at least in the text of the Goodman story, because on 
the face of it they are not so appealing, by which I mean they 
do not present the cheapskate copywriter with the same 
happy cliches as the rags-to-riches success of the big band, 
which was after all one of those rare moments in social history 
when reality and outrageous romance come together and 
touch for a while, when the facts take on the amorphous 
aspect of a sentimental legend whose only excuse for existing 
at all is the fact that it really did happen. The Goodman 
success was another illustration of life imitating art, that is, 
if the Hollywood output of the period could by any stretch of 
the critical imagination be regarded as art. 

The recordings Goodman made with Billie Holiday and 
Teddy Wilson marked the moment in his career when this 
astonishing duality of attitude began to be noticeable. The 
discography now starts to list items whose juxtaposition 
transforms Goodman's career into slapstick of the crudest 
kind. The discography tells us that the big band recorded 
'When a Lady Meets a Gentleman Down South' within six 
weeks of the date on which Goodman played on 'Pennies 


from Heaven' with Billie Holiday, a session on which Lester 
Young created a twenty-four bar solo for which the only 
suitable adjective is marvellous; that he recorded *]mgle 
Bells' with his own band on July ist, 1935, and 'I Wished on 
the Moon' with Wilson and Holiday on July 2nd, 1935 ; that 
on successive sessions he made 'After You've Gone' with the 
trio and 'Santa Claus Comes in the Spring' with the orches- 
tra; that in one four-week period in 1938 he cut some reason- 
able sides with the orchestra, four superlative tracks with a 
Wilson-Holiday pick-up group, including 'He Ain't Got 
Rhythm' and 'I Must Have That Man' ; and a quartet session 
which produced an outstanding interpretation of 'Tea for 

The dichotomy became more marked as time went on. In- 
deed, once the big band had captured the mass imagination, 
it could not have been avoided. By the time Goodman 
became the undisputed King of Swing, his orchestra, his 
commercial potential, his economic significance, had taken 
control of him. There was little he could do now but sit in 
the driver's seat and wait for the whole clanking machinery 
of the Big Band Touring Age to grind to a halt, as inevitably 
it had to in time. But before it did Goodman had been 
granted all the wishes implicit in that statement of his about 
riding out the worsening depression of 1932. 

The movement from brothel to speakeasy is presumably a 
social advance from the objectionable to the questionable. 
The movement from speakeasy to dancehall was exchanging 
the questionable for the almost respectable, or even staid. It 
was a huge jump and Goodman will always symbolize it even 
if he was not solely responsible for it, nor even aware what 
was happening when first the process gathered impetus. But 
Goodman was very far from finished as a social godfather 

Having rendered comically obsolete the old complaint 



about jazz being the music of the damned, Goodman now 
proceeded to remove jazz a further step away from its seamy 
origins and actually succeeded in making it academically 
respectable, at least socially. He did it with another of those 
inspired acts which come at just the right time and are carried 
out in just the right way and inspire just the right reaction, 
another moment in the career of Goodman when the facts 
take on the dreamlike quality of sentimental unreality. 
Vaulting ambition spurred him on to unheard-of conquests. 
In his personal excitement he may not have noticed that as 
he swept forward, he did so with such compulsive energy that 
he dragged the whole jazz world with him. 

For the hero of a Hollywood musical of the time to have 
turned round to his men and suggest they play in Carnegie 
Hall might be expected, for such a suggestion is an excess of 
taste so outrageous that even the Hollywood of the time would 
be hard put to better it. It would be a gesture so imbecilic as 
to defy all rational critique, being born of the wondrous idea 
that the venue of a concert can in some mysterious way 
exalt the music played inside it, and the even more bizarre one 
that until jazz could conquer the world of formal music, 
life was not worth living, all of which is neatly symbolic of the 
social guilt-complex of jazz which has contrived to make its 
relationship towards serious music precisely that of the 
bastard son and the heir presumptive. 

For a great jazz musician to have made the suggestion in 
real life, and then to act on the suggestion, is one of those 
freaks of circumstance attributable either to masterly assess- 
ment of the cretinous nature of the moment, or pure, un- 
diluted fluke of the most colossal proportions, far greater than 
the accidental conquest at the Palomar Ballroom, about 
which Goodman has confessed, 'We were almost too scared 
to play.* 

But before the culminating comedy of Carnegie Hall the 



second of Goodman's Three Good Things had occurred, in 
March 1937. This is how Goodman remembered the day: 

We had undertaken to double at the Paramount Theatre 
in New York in addition to playing our job at the Pennsyl- 
vania, with no expectation that we would do more than 
fair business. After all, our only previous theatre bookings 
had been something less than sensational. So when we 
arrived at the theatre for an early morning rehearsal before 
the first show and found a couple of hundred kids lined up 
in front of the box office at about 7 a.m., we could not help 
feeling that every one of our most loyal supporters in the 
five boroughs was already on hand. 

Either Goodman has chosen to be unnecessarily melodra- 
matic about this affair at the Paramount box-office, instinctively 
shaping his story in the mould of the rags-to-riches parody 
his own life became, or he is revealing once and for all the 
accidental nature of the whole big band adventure. How 
slowly the facts dawned, not only Goodman, but the entire 
profession. Despite the Palomar and despite the steady rise 
of the Goodman takings, even of his less talented imitators, 
the sheer enormity of the breakthrough jazz had made had 
yet to be grasped. Goodman continues: 

All through the showing of the picture, folks backstage 
said there were noises and whistling coming through from 
the house as Claudette Colbert did her stuff in 'Maid of 
Salem'. The theatre was completely full an hour before we 
were supposed to go on, and when we finally came up on 
the rising platform the noise sounded like Times Square 
on New Year's Eve. That reception topped anything we 
had known up to that time, and because we felt it was 
spontaneous and genuine, we got a tremendous kick out 
of it. 



On that first day at the Paramount Theatre Goodman tells us 
that twenty-one thousand people paid to see the orchestra. 
The figure is worth pondering over for a moment, par- 
ticularly against the economic background of jazz music at 
the time. Twenty-one thousand people in one day. The 
moment Goodman talks of when his band came slowly into 
view on the rising stage is one of those pregnant moments in 
jazz history when, for good or ill, the entire facts of life are 
changed and never to be quite the same again. 

The extracts I quote come from a revealing little work 
called The Kingdom of Swing, written by Goodman in 
collaboration with Irving Kolodin, whose interpolations 
between chapters consist of the superficial potted history of 
jazz generally accepted as the truth of the matter in the 19305. 
The Kingdom of Swing was first published in April 1939, 
when its author was at the very zenith of his commercial 
power. It was primarily one more product of the Benny 
Goodman Mass Production Factory, its function and status 
wavering uncertainly between the fringe activity of a fan 
club and an advertising campaign for soap flakes. It catches 
Goodman at the psychological moment of his complete 
acceptance. For that reason it is highly relevant to any 
appraisal of Goodman's attitude to the music he was selling 
at the time. 

The Kingdom of Swing turns out to be the most damning 
condemnation of its author, for the book never at any time 
attempts any honesty about jazz music. It is frankly a routine 
pastiche stuffed between hardboard covers, dovetailing cosily 
with the myths of the Hollywood vulgarians. Today the book 
is forgotten. Indeed it was never available in Great Britain at 
all. At the time it was written, it seems unlikely that a little 
candour would have cost very much in the way of sales. 

At first The Kingdom of Swng is no more than distressingly 
naive. Its first two or three chapters may reasonably be 



described as the 'kid in short pants called Benny Goodman' 
school of jazz journalism. However, it soon dawns on the 
perceptive reader that not only is Goodman determined not 
to commit himself on any important points, but is avoiding 
any kind of criticism at all. This man is 'a fine sax player', the 
next fellow is 'a fine trumpet man', and so on. The wretched 
catalogue lengthens with every page. And then, in Chapter 
Five, entitled 'Musician's Musician', occurs a passage that 
passes a final verdict on the book as no book at all, but only a 
package of advertising copy of the crudest kind. 

Goodman is talking of 'that swell horn player' Bix Beider- 
becke. The year is 1931 and Bix is supposed to be on the 
decline. Goodman says: 

There is a story that during one number he went out cold 
on the stand, and I picked up his cornet and played a 
chorus, but I really don't remember that part of it. It 
seems more likely to me that the other brass man would 
have played the chorus, even though I can play a little 
cornet in a pinch. 

Six lines of print that contain within them several implications 
Goodman intends the reader to accept. If we examine those 
implications a little closer, we begin to see emerging the 
image of the jazz musician the author is intent on presenting 
to the outside world. 

First it is quite clear (a) that the story is apocryphal, and 
(b) that Goodman has no intention of denying it, 'I really 
don't remember that part of it', says Goodman, to which the 
reader might be justified in asking, 'That part of what?'. In 
one breath Goodman is denying he remembers the incident, 
yet in the next he is hinting that nonetheless things happened 
that night somehow related to the incident he is rejecting. 
It is all very disingenuous, but compared to what follows, 



as honest and naive as the gurglings of a baby. Posing as the 
realist, Goodman offers us a more plausible explanation than 
the one in the story. 'If Bix really collapsed/ Goodman is 
saying, 'his chorus would have been taken over by the other 
trumpeter. That seems most likely to me,' adding as an after- 
thought, 'although it just so happens that I can play cornet, 
so you see. . . / 

It is not just that Goodman is refusing to squash a ridicu- 
lous myth, or even that he poses, ludicrously, as a shy young 
fellow almost too abashed to confess he can play more than 
one instrument. What is really disgraceful about the passage 
is its underlying imposture, its calculated attempt to support 
the conception of the jazz world foisted on the public by bad 
journalists and worse scenario writers. 

The passage takes for granted that when a man collapses on 
the stand it is essential that the chorus he has been playing be 
completed on the same instrument. But Goodman has been 
blustering all through the chapter about pick-up groups 
which play jazz on casual dates. The very title of the chapter 
is 'Musician's Musician'. Who cares, under such circum- 
stances, whether a chorus that is started on one instrument is 
finished or not on a different instrument? If Bix really had 
collapsed in the middle of a cornet solo and Goodman was 
heartless enough, fanatical enough, unbalanced enough, to 
have wanted to complete the chorus before all else, then he 
would have played out the remaining bars on his own 

Let us consider just for a few mad moments what must 
have happened if the myth is to be swallowed whole. Bix is 
involved in a chorus. Suddenly he collapses. Presumably he 
crumples to the ground with one of those sickening thuds 
reserved for such occasions. Goodman, probably sitting next 
to him, now has very little time to work in. The chorus has 
begun, for that, after all, is the whole point of the tale. Bix, 



inconsiderate fellow that he was, did not have the good grace 
to collapse during someone else's chorus, he had to go and 
make himself awkward in the middle of his own. Very well. 
Bix lies prone on the stand. Goodman decides to come to the 
rescue, not of Bix, but of the Jazz Muse. He has, giving him 
all the best of it, twenty-four bars to take over and restore to 
the group's performance that artistic unity he evidently 

First he has to replace the cap on his clarinet mouthpiece. 
He could lay the clarinet down without bothering, but in a 
later chapter he takes up several paragraphs to explain why a 
good reed is the most important thing in the universe. Let us 
assume he replaces the cap and puts the clarinet down in some 
safe place. Let us also assume Goodman's reactions are 
abnormally swift, that he grasps the implications of Bix's 
collapse within four bars, and that he gets rid of his own 
instrument in another four. Provided Bix played only eight 
bars of his chorus before collapsing, this still leaves Goodman 
with sixteen bars to retrieve the situation. He leaves his chair 
and bends over the body. Wrestling with the figure of the 
unconscious man, he tugs the cornet from his nerveless 
grasp. This might take any length of time, but assuming that 
Goodman, a musician's musician, has had much experience 
of this kind of thing, he might manage it in, say, six bars, 
especially if the rhythm section has been obliging enough to 
drag the tempo down a little. Now Goodman has to stand up, 
resume his position and check the instrument for any damage. 
The last time I was on the same stand as a trumpeter who 
collapsed, his instrument was buckled hopelessly in the 
process. Goodman puckers his lips and tries to produce a 
note. As he has not played much cornet, this testing would 
take at least another eight bars, leaving him only two bars to 
complete the chorus. He hastily plays a dominant-to-tonic 
cadence and sits down, the situation having been saved in 



magnificent fashion and the fair name of the Goddess Jazz 
still unsullied, thanks to the chivalrous resource of the young 
lad in short pants from the Chicago ghetto, etc., etc. 

Seriously, if Bix, or even Goodman, really had collapsed, 
then the only concern of his fellow-musicians would have 
been to pick him up and try to discover how serious the 
damage was. But Goodman will not admit this in his book, 
even though the conclusion is quite obvious to anyone whose 
brain functions reasonably well. Goodman is intent on 
presenting to the world this crass vision of dedicated artists 
caring nothing for anything or anyone but their art, of men 
who literally worship at the shrine and who live a life of 
incredible intensified romantic activity. In other words, the 
jazz life seen through the imbecile prism of a Hollywood 
musical. Many years later fate was to catch up with Benny 
Goodman once and for all, making a vulgar mockery, not just 
of a casual book to which Goodman put his name, but of his 
entire life's history. Those who may have felt for Goodman 
when this happened, would do well to remember that little 
passage about the collapse of Bix Beiderbecke and duly note 
that the monster which finally gobbled up Goodman was the 
same monster Goodman himself had been deliberately feed- 
ing in 'The Kingdom of Swing*. 

The reader who cannot bring himself to swallow the 
collapsing Bix episode may be pardoned for abandoning the 
rest of the book completely, refusing to accept anything it 
says as having any relevance to what happened, either at the 
Palomar, the Paramount or Carnegie Hall. Musicians who 
deny the validity of what is written about jazz by non-playing 
critics are often very justified, but it is doubtful whether any 
hack ever did much worse than The Kingdom of Swing. 

It might be tempting now to turn one's back on Goodman 
in search of some more worthy object of study. But Good- 
man's attitude towards the layman's world and its relation- 


ship to and understanding of jazz, superficial as it may have 
been, has no bearing on the music he was producing. Even if 
Goodman showed this lamentable tendency to subscribe to 
the legends of the yellow press, the exasperating truth is that 
when he played, he produced jazz of the highest quality. The 
duality is typical of Goodman, though perhaps no more 
freakish than the false-nose approach to which so many jazz- 
men have resorted in their attempts to sell the music. The 
Kingdom of Swing is a false nose transformed into a few 
thousand words and sold as a book. It has no bearing on the 
jazz itself. 

The trios and quartets were the product of a natural jazz 
talent allied to fanatical technical ambition. Gradually the 
jazz talent shrank as Goodman grew older, while the technical 
aspirations remained undimmed. Slowly the perfect im- 
balance between the two was destroyed, and the official date 
of the abandonment of the perfect four-man formula Good- 
man had evolved for himself was October 2nd, 1939. On this 
day he made a recording which in two very different but 
equally vital ways heralded the end of Goodman's Golden 
Age. For the first time he resorted to the sextet formula, 
although in effect the first sextet was still just a rhythm 
section plus the clarinet. The second profound change was 
the presence in this rhythm section of a remarkable guitarist 
symbolic of a new younger generation whose playing now 
began to make Goodman's appear flabby in contrast. 

Charlie Christian had virtually no recording career apart 
from the Goodman sides, but in his brief life he created the 
only music for which the Goodman sextets are likely to be 
remembered. Christian is the musician usually cited as the 
symbolic figure caught flat-footed between the old jazz and 
the new, a generalization which is more convenient than 
accurate, being one of those half-truths which tempt people 
to think no farther after they have digested them. In his 



phrasing and his inflexions Christian was an archetype of the 
Swing Age. The riffs he concocted, of which 'Flying Home' 
may be taken as typical, have about them not a glimmering of 
a suggestion that a harmonic revolution was now imminent* 
Some of Christian's riffs sound so essentially children of the 
middle 19305 that they can strike the ear as excruciating. But 
they do so because of the incongruity between them and the 
musical content of some of the solos rising out of them. It is 
here that Christian's playing suggests at odd moments that 
the frame that has served jazz for so long may soon be rejected 
as too restrictive by younger musicians. 

Here and there in Christian's solos occur those same 
leaps, apparently quite irrational, later to be one of the most 
disconcerting of Charlie Parker's new tactics. The irration- 
ality in both cases was quite imaginary, being due to the 
rigid conception of how a jazz phrase should move to which 
the jazz world was so thoroughly attuned in the 19305. To 
this extent only was Christian an apocalyptic figure. Rhyth- 
mically he was as addicted as all the rest to the chug-chug- 
chug of the rhythm section, which is not to belittle his 
wonderful gift. So far from being the revolutionary, Christian 
was the final consummation of the diatonic approach, stand- 
ing head and shoulders above almost everybody he played 
with. His presence in the Goodman sextet, allied to the 
almost comic formalism of many of the group's themes, like 
'Shivers' and 'Seven Come Eleven', misled many people into 
the suspicion that this sextet, with its bright, ingenious little 
arrangements and its suave riffs, might be the beginning of a 
new era in jazz. Every time Christian took a solo the suspicion 
was strengthened because certainly there was something 
fresh about him. It is ironic indeed that Benny Goodman of 
all people, the musician who was soon to slang all the 
modernists, should have given Christian such lavish solo 



So far from being the start of something, the Goodman 
Sextet was the ending of something very old. It was an 
attempt to bring to the small group the kind of premeditated 
precision of a large one. But the premeditated precision had 
only been created at all because the big band demanded it. 
The amusing thing is that for all their tailored impeccability 
and their tortuous commonplaces, Goodman can find for 
them no climaxes to match the careful stylization of the rest 
of the performance. Time and again Goodman returns to that 
Chicagoan tear-up last chorus, as though looking nostalgic- 
ally over his shoulder at the good old days. 

A year after its creation, the Sextet made another record- 
ing, this time dropping the vibraphone, including an extra 
man, and building up the front line to Goodman plus Cootie 
Williams and George Auld, tacit admission on Goodman's 
part that the possibilities of the quartet were now behind him. 
From time to time he did return to the smaller group 
formula, but always to the same themes, and always to the 
same kind of solo. The sextet recording of 'After You've 
Gone', in 1946, contains superlative technical clarinet play- 
ing, academically purer than the trio record of the same theme 
ten years earlier, but most of the solo is made up of formal 
arpeggios and scalic designs one might come across in the 
finger exercises of Klose or Lazarus. It was a performance 
different in spirit from the two earlier Goodman versions of 
'After You've Gone*, the early sentimental one with Venuti and 
Lang, and the middle-period one with the trio. It is far more 
sophisticated than either of the first two, and certainly more 
complex technically than the half-tempo track of 1932. It 
represents Goodman a successful man according to his own 
standards, for he possesses a technique so magnificent that 
even an exhibition like this is relaxation after the challenge of 
the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, a piece Goodman has recorded 
and performed on several public occasions. 



The decline of Goodman's jazz reputation during the 
19403 was a dignified affair, nicely paced so as to be almost 
unnoticed. In the commercial field Glenn Miller, one of his 
old colleagues from bootleg days, had taken over his crown. 
In the jazz world, the Dizzy Gillespie big band had put all 
thoughts of pieces like 'Clarinet a la King' out of the heads of 
connoisseurs. Goodman finally acknowledged his own 
artistic death when he sold the rights of his own life story. 
Hollywood deals only with corpses in its biographies, even 
if at the time of the screen version of their lives the corpses 
are still twitching a little. What motivates a man to sell the 
rights of his life to Hollywood? Money, presumably. The 
only other possible reason might be vanity, but then Holly- 
wood does such dire damage to the facts and the personality 
that only a halfwit would be flattered by Hollywood's 
interest. At the time Goodman agreed to the making of 'The 
Benny Goodman Story' he was a reputed millionaire. He 
didn't need Hollywood. In holding the rights to his own life 
and also enough dollar bills to make him independent of the 
bribers, presumably he could either have refused all offers 
point-blank, or he could have insisted on a film which bore 
some relation to the truth, He did neither. He put his name 
to one of the most witless musical messes ever to come out of 
a film studio, a truth not mitigated by the fact that there was 
some good jazz in the film. 

"The Benny Goodman Story' is The Kingdom of Swing 
made visible in Technicolor. It is the biography of an 
advertising copywriter's legend, not of a real life. Earlier I 
mentioned the phrase lack of professional dignity' in con- 
nection with Goodman, and I was thinking specifically of one 
outrageous piece of nonsense in *The Benny Goodman 
Story'. Every time Goodman gazes on the face of his beloved 
he points his clarinet at her and doodles the melody of 
Memories of You*. I wonder whether it were possible for any 



great instrumentalist to countenance a stroke of deeper 
lunacy. The use of the clarinet voice as a way of proposing 
marriage fits better into the weird wonderland of The King- 
dom of Swing than it does into the real world in which the 
young Goodman recorded his best work. 

And yet, *The Benny Goodman Story' is the natural cul- 
mination of a life whose main energies were devoted to sating 
the appetite of the masses for cheap dreams, easy to under- 
stand but very hard for any artist to swallow. It is very 
possible that posterity will remember Goodman as the hero 
of a crazy nightmare in which he picks up the body of Bix 
Beiderbecke and tosses it to Donna Reed, singing the lyric 
of < Memories of You' at the same time, with clarinets pro- 
truding from all parts of his body, a kind of jazzed-up version 
of 'The Martyrdom of St Sebastian'. 

Today jazz concerts are a commonplace socially as well as 
musically. Goodman was the begetter of these musical 
occasions, just as he was the begetter of orchestral fan clubs, 
clarinet held to the sky in profile at an angle of sixty degrees, 
and the legend that the Big Bandleader is a figure of heroic 
proportions. He started the habit of voting in popularity polls 
and he established the convention that when a band- 
leader grew big enough he ought to be invited by Hollywood 
to play himself in a series of musicals in which the Alice 
Fayes and Betty Grables of this world pursue and finally 
catch the John Paynes and the Don Ameches. 

Above all else towers the silhouette of Carnegie Hall, the 
bastion of formalism and respectability that Goodman 
stormed and captured in a frontal assault. On that day Good- 
man showed his judgment of a jazz musician by including on his 
programme guests like Johnny Hodges and Lester Young, far 
superior to anybody Goodman employed in his own saxophone 
section. In 'Honeysuckle Rose' Young eclipses everybody else 
on the premises. In 'Blue Reverie', featuring Hodges on 


soprano, the orchestral texture makes nonsense of the normal 
Goodman big band processes. The curiosity of the whole 
evening, however, must have been Goodman's caricature of 
Ted Lewis in 'When My Baby Smiles at Me'. His career as a 
musician had started in childhood with an impersonation of 
Lewis. Later, Lewis had usurped Goodman's felicity on a 
recording in the early 19305. Now Goodman was winning the 
decider by lampooning Lewis in the very stronghold of that 
musical outlook which could never have regarded a figure 
like Lewis as a musician at all. It may have been a coincidence 
that Goodman chose to do such a thing on such a night in 
such a place. Then again, it might have been his way of 
gaining revenge. 

That is the trouble with Goodman's story, as distinct from 
'The Benny Goodman Story'. At most of the crucial points, 
doubt is the only factor about which we can be certain. Even 
that remark of Goodman's about the day at the Paramount 
Theatre is possibly suspect. 'That reception topped anything 
we had known up to that time, and because we felt it was 
spontaneous and genuine, we got a tremendous kick out of it/ 
A few years ago a friend of mine who had lived in New York 
for several years, told me that once at a party uptown he had 
met a man who swore that his brother had been paid to start 
the dancing in the aisles. When in the course of writing this 
chapter I went to my friend and asked him to elucidate he 
denied any knowledge of having said anything about Good- 
man or the Paramount Theatre or anybody's brother. 
Possibly I imagined it, impelled by wish-fulfilment. I do not 
know. But with Benny Goodman, anything is possible. He 
may even have proposed to his wife by pointing a clarinet at 
her head* 



'Now we are not to consider that every new and personal beauty 
in art abrogates past achievements as an Act of Parliament does 
preceding ones. You are to consider these beauties, these 
innovations, as additions to an existing family. How barbarous 
you would seem if you were unable to bestow admiration and 
affection on a fascinating child in the nursery without at once 
finding yourselves compelled to rush downstairs and cut its 
mother's throat and stifle its grandmother. These ladies may 
still have their uses. 9 


EVER since I first encountered it in my apprentice days, the 
paradox of Lester Young has never ceased to amaze me. For 
me there has been no other musical experience quite like it, 
not even the disconcerting afternoon in the summer of 1947 
when a clinical friend played me a record called Anthro- 
pology' and by so doing brought the entire superstructure of 
my musical thought crashing down about my ears. 

What was so singular about Lester Young? There had been 
jazz musicians before him as great as he, although far fewer 
than conventional criticism has allowed. His reign as a leader 
of thought in the jazz world was relatively short-lived, for 
within a year or two of the final parting with Basic, from 
which time the gradual decline of Young's powers may be 



charted, Charlie Parker was already conducting a revolution 
of his own. It could even be fairly claimed that Lester never 
dominated his field, which is where the paradox finally over- 
whelms. The acknowledgment of Lester's superiority over all 
his rivals was so belated that by the time he came to be 
recognized as a historically significant figure, he was already 
ceasing to play the kind of jazz that earned him such recog- 
nition. It is in its context of time and place that the emergence 
of Lester Young is so startling, for he confronts the critical 
mind with the problem of genuine originality only tenuously 
connected with anything that had gone before. Lester, it 
seems, owes nothing to any of his predecessors. 

Jazz criticism, marred as it always has been by musical 
illiteracy and intellectual untidiness, has never done full 
justice to the figure of Young. After twenty years it has 
belatedly bestowed upon him its dubious accolade of adjec- 
tival verbosity, and has still to appreciate and record intelli- 
gently the importance of his presence on a musical scene with 
which he seems to be only distantly related. 

Jazz is the reluctant art which lacks a classical tradition. 
Its critics, committed, by their limitations to a policy of 
chasing their own tails, have quite failed to establish more 
than the crudest canons of judgment. Most jazz critique has 
been based with a kind of hapless desperation on the theory 
of cross-influence. Henry Allen, Jnr; is said to have been 
'heavily influenced' by Louis Armstrong. Ben Webster is 
supposed to play 'in the Hawkins tradition'. It is understood 
one is supposed to detect the influence of Frank Trumbauer 
in the tonal quality of Lee Konitz. No doubt there is a certain 
limited pleasure to be derived from this kind of approach. 
Certainly the device has proved a godsend to commentators 
on an art form who possess scant knowledge of its technical- 
ities. But it is quite useless telling the student of jazz that 
Ben Webster plays in the Hawkins tradition unless you tell 



him also what the Hawkins tradition comprises. It is with its 
great originals that jazz criticism, technically inept and 
musically uneducated, has done woefully badly. Its exponents 
took long enough to realize that Lester Young was an original 
at all, for years rejecting his originality as an aberration and 
his artistic courage as mere perversity. Whenever confronted 
with true originality, the ill-equipped critic has instinctively 
retired in disorder, trailing his abstruse jargon behind 

With Lester Young, whose list of idolaters and imitators is 
now longer than that of any other man or school in the entire 
genealogy of jazz music, the problem is more subtly compli- 
cated, because Lester was not just original but quite isolated 
by the schools of action around him. It comes as no real 
surprise for the neophyte to discover that Hawkins recorded 
with Bessie Smith, or that Jimmy Dorsey played in the same 
jazz ensemble as Bix Beiderbecke. But it comes as a sudden 
unreasonable shock to be told for the first time that Lester 
Young actually aspired towards the Hawkins chair in the 
Fletcher Henderson band, and even filled it for a short time, 
to the evident exasperation of almost everyone involved, in- 
cluding Lester, or that, even more incredible, that Lester once 
worked with King Oliver, surely the most incongruous rela- 
tionship to be found anywhere in the history of jazz. The point 
about Lester Young is that one is continually surprised to 
hear that he ever had anything to do with anybody at all. 

Young represents a regenesis, a second chance as it were, 
for the tenor saxophone in jazz. It was all too unfortunate for 
his reputation that he emerged at a time when a traditional 
school of tenor saxophone playing was firmly established and 
flourishing. He was obliged to fight bitterly for some years 
before his revolutionary statagems acquired respectability, 
which is precisely why his reputation as a giant began to 
grow after his stature as a creative musician had begun to 



shrink. The story of his experiences in the Fletcher Hender- 
son band in 1934 is one of the most ironic in jazz history, with 
Henderson's wife plying Lester with Coleman Hawkins 
records, while the saxophone section, Edgar Sampson, 
Russell Procope and Buster Bailey, expressed horror at what 
Lester was doing. As John Hammond has euphemistically 
put it, 'Fletcher bowed to the will of the majority, hired Chu 
Berry and sent Lester back to Kansas City.' Lester himself 
gives a subtle twist to the story when he says he asked 
Henderson for a release note certifying he had not been fired 
on the usual grounds, and then left voluntarily rather than 
ape the mannerisms of another. It is not difficult to picture 
the general scene during Lester's stay with Henderson, the 
first occasion on which the revolutionary came into open 
conflict with the Establishment. 

We can excuse Henderson and his saxophonists for their 
reaction to Lester, for he was in effect rejecting the accepted 
canons of phrase-making more uncompromisingly than any 
other musician had before him or was to do again till Charlie 
Parker. In even the early Lester the very principles of saxo- 
phone playing have been drastically amended. For this reason 
a judgment of him is not to be arrived at merely through the 
possession of a recondite vocabulary and a working knowledge 
of the theory of matrix numbers. To an uneducated critic, 
Lester Young's was the most disconcerting arrival of all 
before the Parker-Gillespie dynasty. 

Lester, being an anachronistic freak, seems to be out of 
context wherever he is placed. Seen against the post-Minton 
background, of which he is often wrongly assumed to be a 
part, he is a languorous misfit. Yet, considered in the context 
of the time when he actually did emerge, his style seems to be 
a startling error of fifteen years misplacement. To cast around 
in search of any established saxophonist who sounded even 
remotely like him is a futile pursuit. There are none. Even 



among his young contemporaries there is only Dick Wilson 
who had some idea of what Lester was up to. 

The situation was remarkable. There stood Hawkins, the 
acknowledged master, bestriding the era like the colossus he 
was, a passionate rhapsode of great romantic power. The only 
variations on his style were minor ones like the dry charm of 
Bud Freeman. And then, with no warning in the form of 
gradual amendment of tone or approach, takes place the most 
dramatic single entry in the history of jazz up to that time, 
the emergence of a new and already perfected style (for 
Lester never got very much better than that first recording of 
'Lady Be Good'), a fresh style related to nothing that had 
gone before, mature from its conception and so revolutionary 
that there is literally nobody to keep it musical company. 
Even on some of the memorable Basie recordings of the late 
19305, involving more than one member of the avant-garde 
of the day, can be detected the occasional slight uncertainty 
of the rhythm section quite how to follow Lester. 

Either through innate modesty or an impish sense of 
humour Lester himself has told how his evolving style was 
influenced by Frank Trumbauer and Bud Freeman. This 
confession would seem to be no more than a conversational 
device, like Hawkins* insistence that everyone is very good, or 
Illinois Jacquet's, that they are very bad. Trumbauer's 
drastic reduction of vibrato and Freeman's dilution of the 
customary wrath and passion of the pre-Lester saxophonists 
may both certainly be seen in relation to Lester's style, but 
these influences are merely tonal and are quite divorced from 
the revolution in the shaping of the aural patterns of jazz 
music which was aesthetically too startling a feature of the new 
style. Whether or not Lester was the first to amend the tenor 
saxophone tone, or to employ false fingerings for tonal con- 
trast at the same pitch, or consistently to augment the chord 
of the dominant seventh, is not really relevant to the issue of 



his originality, It is Lester Young's achievement that he 
synthesized these scattered mannerisms into a coherent and 
intensely personal style. The most interesting fact which does 
emerge from Lester's mention of Trumbauer and Freeman 
is that both these men were white. It seems that in Lester the 
process becomes apparent for the first time of the customary 
racial handing down of jazz being reversed. Lester repre- 
sented a generation of urbanized Negroes whose attitude to 
life as well as jazz was profoundly different from 
men who had travelled afield with the music of New 
Orleans. In Lester the racial lines of jazz style began to get 
blurred over. Twenty years after 'Lady Be Good' it would no 
longer be possible to tell a man's colour from the tone, he 
produced on a musical instrument. Most of the saxophonists 
who modelled their style on Lester happened to be white. 

Before a musician can produce a tone, he must first possess 
some kind of mental conception of that tone. His instrument 
will re-echo his inner ear, and the inclinations of that inner 
ear will be influenced profoundly by the prevailing musical 
environment. There are fashions in instrumental tone in jazz, 
just as surely as there are fashions in any other kind of art 
form. The intriguing question about Lester Young is how he 
contrived, in a Hawkins-saturated climate, to hear the tenor 
in an entirely original manner, keeping in mind the fact that 
Trumbauer, Freeman and others may unwittingly have 
pointed the way. Young's own explanations for this pheno- 
menon are whimsical but unenlightening. One feels more 
bewildered than ever after reading them. 

The problem of whether Lester's original sound influenced 
the shaping of his aural patterns, or whether the originality of 
the patterns instinctively produced a new tone (for such an 
unconscious evolution is very possible), is a pons asinorum for 
the jazz theorist. There is no doubt that the two were twin 
facets of the same process. With Lester it is hopeless attempt- 



ing to differentiate between the form and the content, or 
between technical cause and effect, for they are one and the 
same. Ever since its confrontation with the unfamiliarity of 
Lester's approach, criticism has tended to wriggle out of an 
awkward corner by tacking on to Lester the word 'cerebral', 
implying as it does so that Hawkins was just a country boy 
with his heart in the right place, or that there is more evidence 
of intellectual activity in Lester Young's Twelfth Street Rag' 
than there is in Coleman Hawkins' 'Body and Soul', all of 
which sadly begs the question. 

Young's style may create the illusion of greater cerebral 
activity because of its sophistication in comparison with any- 
thing that had gone before. It is the obviousness of his 
perfect equipoise which can mislead even the perceptive 
listener into the delusion that Hawkins is a mere clodhopper 
by comparison. That equipoise was achieved by the deploy- 
ment of new devices, and the delusion created by the 
spectral strangeness of those devices to those whose musical 
experience went no further afield than jazz music. The 
Young tone sounded more refined and his phraseology 
subtler. Indeed there is a sense in which Lester's approach to 
a chord progression is more ingenious than that of any of his 
predecessors. Where Hawkins would exploit every note in the 
chord, racing breathlessly up and down the arpeggios, Young 
would pass along the same harmonic path by the devious 
means of omission, implication and suggestion, endowing 
familiar progressions with a strange orientation by the use of 
neglected intervals, economy of notes and great pungency 
of wit in selecting them. 

But there is nothing less cerebral about Hawkins' impec- 
cable melodic sense in tracing a complex chord progression, 
the sequential beauty of his climbing phrases, or the rich 
romanticism of his melodic lines, which stamp him un- 
mistakably as a creative artist of resource and culture. Where 



Hawkins is profuse Lester is pithy, where Hawkins is 
passionate Lester is reflective. In such a technical connotation 
a word like 'cerebral' has no meaning at all and has simply 
been employed for critical convenience, 

Now this is an issue vital to the understanding of Lester's 
place in the history of jazz development. Failure to arrive at 
this understanding means a failure to appreciate fully the 
fascinating innovations Lester was responsible for, and which 
comprise the basis of one of the most delightful, witty and 
original personal styles in jazz history. It was not Lester 
Young who brought cerebral powers to bear on a chaotic 
scene to produce order. Hawkins had done that years before. 
What Lester achieved was the creation of an alternative kind 
of order to the one Hawkins had offered the jazz world. 

A great deal of lip-service is paid today to the Lester 
Young Legend, for it is understood in some vague, undefined 
and perhaps indefinable way that Lester Young changed the 
expression for good and all on the face of the goddess Jazz. 
If his contribution to the music is to be fully divined, it is 
vital that the apparent inscrutability of his genius is intelli- 
gently broken down into its component parts and correctly 
interpreted in relation to the contributions of, say, Goodman, 
Bix and Parker. Whatever we do, we have all had enough of 
the maundering gibberish about Les the Pres. 

The Young style of the halcyon days is a highly mannered 
one, constantly avoiding by a hairsbreadth the pitfall of 
affectation. To an ear educated only by what had gone before 
in jazz, his playing always contained the element of surprise. 
The piquant deviations from conventional patterns were 
quite original, often anticipating amendments that became 
cliches in the bebop era. On many Lester solos of the middle 
1930$ may be detected the instinctive groping towards the 



chromatic progressions of descending minor sevenths which 
became such an overworked device in modern jazz ten or 
fifteen years later, although it is doubtful, from the context 
of those phrases, whether Lester was actually thinking in 
terms of minor seventh progressions at the time, 

His resource during this period seems to have been un- 
limited and he to have exulted in it so much as to have 
extended deliberately his own powers to the utmost. His 
gambit of usurping the pianist's introductory role was some- 
thing quite different in character from Louis Armstrong's 
incredible exhibition of virtuosity in his curtain-raiser to 
'West End Blues' or Benny Goodman's occasional static 
solo introductions with the trios and quartets of the period. 
In his four-bar introduction to the Wilson-Holiday 'I Can't 
Get Started', Lester shows a remarkable sense of harmonic 
mood, improvising on what seems today a commonplace 
harmonic sequence, but weaving what was for the times a 
brilliantly original melodic line subtly related to the line of the 
melody to come. Later in the same recording Lester im- 
provises for sixteen bars, and it is difficult to believe that this 
is 1937, three years before Hawkins finally wrapped up 'Body 
and Soul' for posterity. In Lester's solo, passion has been 
replaced by deliberation, as he threads a new strange path 
through the intricacies of the harmonies with a dexterous 
evasion of the obvious sorely tempting one to the use of the 
most abused and overworked noun in jazz criticism genius. 

There has been much talk of that genius, most of it inept 
and misleading. Lester has been accorded a kind of honorary 
position among modernists, placed in juxtaposition to Charlie 
Parker for services rendered, as it were, although nobody 
seems to have taken very much trouble to discover exactly 
what those services were. They are surprisingly simple, at 
least in conception if not execution, and are so remote from 
the orbit of Parker's world that to think of these two great 



originals as twin revolutionaries is to commit an error of 
aesthetic judgment of the grossest kind. Parker said once, *I 
was crazy about Lester. He played so clean and beautiful But 
I wasn't influenced by Lester. Our ideas ran on differently.' 

Lester's tonal devices are simple to the point of being 
glaringly obvious. Hundreds of resourceful saxophonists have 
since contrived to produce recognizably accurate facsimiles. 
Instinctively Lester distilled the tonal qualities of his instru- 
ment almost beyond recognition, to produce what misguided 
critics have since referred to with some naiveti and much 
shamelessness as the 'hard-reed* sound, which is something 
like explaining away the virtues of Macbeth by describing the 
shape of the stage at the Globe Theatre. It is not even 
obligatory to use a metal mouthpiece to produce Lester's 
tone, even though that tone in its heyday undeniably sounded 
metallic. But the metallic impression is an aesthetic one and 
has nothing to do with the material realities of Lester Young's 

Having cast aside the traditions of twenty years of jazz 
saxophone playing, Lester actually extended the very limits 
of the instrument, introducing fingerings of his own that 
would no doubt have scandalized the late Adolph Sax. That 
is why Young's playing has always given the impression that 
its executant was intrigued by the mechanisms of his instru- 
ment more so than any of his predecessors. Unlike Hawkins, 
who seems to have snatched up a saxophone as a means of 
bridging the gulf between his ideas and the outside world, 
Lester seems to have lingered with an exploratory curiosity, 
seeking new devices. It must have required endless patience 
to have discovered all the alternative fingerings which formed 
so important a part of Lester's style. The significant point is 
that his technical innovations and eccentricities have an 
intrinsic musical value which is lacking in, say, the super- 
sonic variations of a Ted Nash. Although Lester's playing 



incorporates these points technically intriguing to other 
saxophonists, inducing in them the question, 'How does he 
do it?', these devices are always rigidly subservient to the 
style, never being allowed to dominate and even become the 
style itself, as in the case of poor Illinois Jacquet. 

And yet in Lester's playing, so intensely personal, so easily 
identifiable, there are moments when all human agency seems 
to have evaporated. From an executive viewpoint there seems 
to be not a man but a spirit behind the solos, as if Lester had 
tiptoed away under his porkpie hat and left the instrument to 
manipulate itself. No breath seems to be drawn and no 
embouchure to be controlling the mouthpiece. Others might 
occasionally close the gap between reed and mouthpiece to 
produce a squeak or a moment of unintended silence, but 
never Lester. Where the saxophone seems to have become 
absorbed within the massive frame of Hawkins, Lester seems 
to have disappeared inside his and become a diabolic exten- 
sion of the keys. In the greatest work of Lester Young there 
is something uncanny. 

The few harmonic devices Lester may be said to have 
introduced are interesting but, perhaps surprisingly, not 
particularly revolutionary. It could never be claimed that he 
drastically amended the harmonic structure of jazz im- 
provisation. Lester's miracle was not the Charlie Parker 
miracle which brushed aside the old harmonic limitations 
with a flourish of impatient genius to grant the soloist so 
much greater freedom of movement Lester's achievement 
was to accept the limitations of tradition harmonies and, 
remaining confined by them, nevertheless contrive to coin a 
new jazz vocabulary. 

It is especially to the point that Lester apparently always 
preferred tunes which moved in the conventional cycles of 
resolving sevenths. His very greatness lies in the fact that 
restricted by these narrow boundaries he imbued common- 



place structures with new and beautiful shapes sounding at 
times perversely complex, but which in fact bore the 
simplicity of true greatness. Only a man with remarkable 
fecundity of musical invention could have achieved what 
Lester did with such comparatively slender harmonic 

On many of his finest recorded solos he is restricted to 
the most limited harmonic material. On some of the Wilson- 
Holiday pick-up sessions, the commercial song copy was the 
only music visible in the studio. Sometimes the sheer 
inadequacy of these melodic trifles crippled lesser lights, but 
Lester always moved benignly along, making the most futile 
commercial jinkles sound poignant or exuberant. There are 
no apparent tricks of technique, no exhibitionism, but an 
unbending catholicity of taste lending grace and dignity to 
vehicles of the slenderest musical content. A fellow-musician 
once described one of these vintage solos to me in awe and 
perplexity as 'just notes', which is what Charlie Parker meant 
when he said that Lester always played so clean and beautiful. 

In bars seventeen to twenty in his solo on the Wilson- 
Holiday recording of 'When You're Smiling' and what 
more skeletal chord progression could anyone select? 
Lester's choice of notes, their duration, the intervals between 
them and the shape he gives the whole are staggeringly 
original. There was at the time no other mind in the whole of 
jazz that would ever have dreamed of tracing such patterns 
at such a time. In the face of such impudent grace and 
felicitous execution, many efforts of Lester's disciples twenty- 
five years after sound hollow and bloodless, no more than a 
faint echo of a faint echo. 

The mannerisms of the Lester Young style actually seem 
commonplace today, which is the most eloquent testimony of 
all to the fact that they have long since become a normal part 
of the jazz vocabulary, like Dizzy Gillespie's double-tempo 

1 02 


runs and Charlie Parker's minor sevenths. The original 
thought of one generation becomes the commonplace of the 
next. It is the forgotten revolutionaries who are the truly 
successful ones. 

An early mannerism of Lester Young's style, illustrated 
perfectly in the entrance to the tenor solo in the Basie version 
of 'Twelfth Street Rag', is the curiously suggestive effect of 
the deftly punched crotchets, soft and yet penetrative, in- 
volving the use of the tongue in a way that suggests a fine 
degree of relaxation and deliberation, a mental awareness of 
the precise musical situation, as though Lester knew per- 
fectly well what was coming four bars later. It is this innate 
sense of form of Lester's that is aesthetically the most im- 
pressive quality of his playing. A transcribed solo from his 
great days with the Basie band, despite the eccentric aural 
shapes, stands as an entity, a perfect model of improvisation, 
balanced without being obvious, logical yet unpredictable, 
possessing a kind of warped symmetry of its own. 

It might be suggested that Lester's solos were precon- 
ceived. Many solos familiar to jazzlovers are. If the theory of 
improvisation is to be adhered to unwaveringly as an essential 
ingredient of a jazz performance, then much of what has been 
passing as jazz music is not jazz music at all, but some 
indefinable crossbreed belonging nowhere and claiming no 
name. How much improvisation is there, for instance, in a 
Jack Teagarden performance, perhaps his ten thousandth, 
of 'Basin Street Blues'? How much in the entire concerted 
ensemble of a dixieland band playing 'Muskrat Ramble' 
again after playing it persistently for thirty years? How much 
in any recent Benny Goodman version of 'After You've 
Gone'. Improvisation is a red herring which has diverted the 
train of thought of many a jazz student, some of whom have 
actually disowned the entire output of arranged jazz simply 
because much of it is notated instead of being improvised at 



the moment of execution. It is not improvisation that matters 
to a jazz performance, but the preservation of its spirit, an 
entirely different thing. 

I came across a most edifying illustration of this fact in 
1954, when Woody Herman's Third Herd visited Europe. 
The bass trumpeter in the band, Cy Touff, played intelligent, 
spirited solos in every one of his spots. Only in more than one 
instance they were the same intelligent, spirited solos he 
played every night. In some of them there was not a jot of 
improvisation. Despite the soloist's projection of his own 
enthusiasm, his closed eyes, his arched spine, his flushed and 
furious face, every note he played was as preconceived as a 
calendar. The first time I heard him trot through his 
repertoire no such thing occurred to me. But the second time 
I watched him I happened to be standing next to Herman's 
bandboy leaning against the bar. He was a typical bandboy, 
affecting greater knowledge of jazz than half the musicians 
whose bags he carried, and who passed his leisure time 
deriding the capabilities of some of his masters in favour of 
Al Cohn, whose tapes and recordings he carried with him 
everywhere he went, guarding them jealously from all but the 
initiated and the worthy, pointedly playing them over and 
discussing them whenever one of the band's saxophonists was 
in earshot 

As I stood next to him he looked at me covertly like a man 
about to divulge a trade secret, and began humming at the 
same moment Cy Touff started to make his way to the 
microphone for a solo on Terdido'. I suddenly realized that 
the bandboy was following Touff's solo through, note for 
note, nuance for nuance, that he breathed with Touff, went 
loud and soft with Touff, sighed with Touff at the end of the 
chorus, and even brushed his lips with the back of his hand at 
the same moment Touff did. And yet it is true to say that 
Touff 's repetitive performances were better jazz than many of 



the genuinely improvised choruses of many other jazz 
musicians. Improvisation is more than a virtue. It is a 
responsibility demanding a degree of creative fertility which 
a high percentage of respected jazz musicians simply do not 

There is a common assumption among jazz fanciers that an 
oft-repeated chorus requires an apologia. 'Suppose/ they say, 
'a musician eventually evolves a chorus on a chord sequence 
so perfect that he cannot conceivably improve upon it. What 
earthly point is there changing it just to adhere to canons of 
the jazz art themselves highly questionable?' Now this is a 
most extraordinary defence for a practice which, as I have 
indicated with reference to Cy Touff, needs no defence at all. 
It is madness to demand of an artist that once he has achieved 
a certain peak of creative coherence, he repeats that peak ad 
infinitum. Was Flaubert supposed to go on writing Madame 
Bovary for the rest of his life. Should Leonardo have turned 
out annual versions of "The Last Supper'? Occasionally a 
solo which catches the fancy of its creator may indeed be 
repeated ad infinitum, for instance Louis Armstrong's 
recorded versions of 'Ain't Misbehavin' '. But 'Ain't Mis- 
behavin' * is only one tune in Armstrong's vast repertoire. He 
evidently enjoys playing that particular chorus. But not 
because he believes that in it he has reached a perfection that 
cannot possibly be amended except for the worse. There are 
few greater ironies for the jazz musician than the situation 
wherein he is obliged to learn one of his own recorded solos, 
so that the paying customers familiar with his recording can 
sit there and bask in the knowledge of their own wisdom. 
Flip Phillips has told of just such an episode involving the 
Herman band and Terdido'. 

It may have escaped the notice of the Play-It-Forever 
brigade that the jazz musician who sincerely believes his solo 
on any particular sequence cannot possibly be improved 



upon, at least not by him, is at the stage in his career where 
he ought to retire. He ought to be concerned, not with 
showing us his peak but in trying to surpass it. In the process 
he will no doubt produce a great deal of dross, but that is one 
of the occupational haphazards of the man who spends his 
life betting on his own powers of impromptu composition. It 
so happens that Lester Young is not involved in any of these 
theories and counter-theories, for there is no doubt that he 
never resorted to the methods of a Touff , any more than those 
of a Nash or a Jacquet. The ear-witnesses of Lester in his 
heyday have all taken care to lay stress on the apparent 
inexhaustibility of his creative flow. It is perhaps truer of him 
than of any of his contemporaries that the limitations of the 
ten-inch record decimated his prowess for the listener. 

Mary Lou Williams has even gone so far as to say that c it 
took Lester maybe four or five choruses to warm up*. To 
consider this statement in the face of some of Lester's 
delectable four and eight-bar fragments on the recordings of 
the mid-i93os inspires the wildest dreams about what might 
have been and perhaps really was. 

Here and there the evidence of the gramophone record 
points to what Jo Jones once described as 'the unlimited 
soloist* in Lester Young. The ten-inch British release of 
Basic's 'Louisiana' features a different Lester solo from the 
EP release, made available in Britain so many years later. 
Lester's two solos are related and yet subtly different. The 
shape of his melodic patterns is identical only in that it 
deviates sharply on both masters from the conventional 
thought of the time, conveniently demonstrated on the same 
two issues by the trumpeter,, whose solo is identical on both 
of the masters* 

In all Ms recorded work during this peak period, there is 
something refreshing about Lester's playing which is most 
uncharacteristic of the era. No cliches dated more swiftly than 



the cliches of the Swing Age. Twenty years after, many of 
them sounded like parodies of themselves. But Lester, during 
the late 19305, is not wearying to listen to today, as much jazz 
of the period undeniably is. There is a certain buoyancy 
which can be discerned in few of his contemporaries. Even the 
urbanity of Benny Carter, possibly the most elegant player 
of the period, sounds today like the urbanity of an era dis- 
tinctly pass6. Carter has grace, but it is the affected grace of 
a time and place that no longer exist. Lester's quality is quite 
different. His best work seems actually to be timeless, an 
extraordinary virtue in the jazz context. 

The buoyance cannot be attributed to any single element 
in Lester's style, but it seems likely that one potent factor in 
the preservation of Lester's freshness is the fact that he was 
one of the first soloists to appreciate the value of momentary 
silences, or the use of the tacit as a musical effect. Lester 
stayed the flow of arpeggios of the period, making Hawkins 
sound profuse, and the Bud Freeman method of stopping up 
all visible gaps in the ensemble positively gauche. Economy 
is one of the fundamentals of the Lester Young style. Not 
even in later years, when all followed in the wake of Charlie 
Parker's double-tempo exuberance, did Lester ever forsake 
his stringent economy. 

The most plagiarized instrumental mannerism of all, the 
one most closely associated with Lester, one which has long 
since become part of the jazz saxophonists' normal equip- 
ment, was the use, always with impeccable taste, of false 
fingerings to obtain an effect of two, or sometimes even three 
different densities of sound on the same note. It is sometimes 
difficult for us to grasp the fact that Lester literally invented 
these now hackneyed effects, and always used them with a 
sense of form too often lacking in his imitators. The false 
fingering effects were, to him, extra weapons in the soloist's 
armoury, devices which could miraculously transform a 



succession of notes at the same pitch, and therefore without 
movement, into a set of notes having little in common with 
each other except that the pitch itself was the same. Nine 
successive lower A's punched out by Lester sounded not 
like a tattoo with merely rhythmic significance, but a 
rounded, mature phrase, in which the varying densities of 
sound ingeniously suggested the chord changes they were to 

lead to. 

It is when we come to examine the harmonic devices of 
Lester as distinct from the instrumental that we are for the 
moment profoundly shocked. For years it has been regarded 
as truism that Lester Young was a great innovator. So he was. 
He is understood to have been a precursor of the moderns. 
So he was, in a way. But for all that, his harmonic devices are 
not in themselves very remarkable. Probably none of them 
are entirely original, in the sense that many players used them 
before Lester. But he was the first to blend them into a 
personal style, making his mannerisms among the most 
distinctive in all jazz. The augmenting of the fifth in the 
dominant seventh chord, resolving on the tonic, usually at the 
end of a middle eight, was an effect admirably suited to 
the melodic whimsicality of Lester's conception, but certainly 
others before him had used it. Benny Goodman employed the 
very effect while Lester sat next to him in the same recording 
studio. On the Wilson-Holiday track of 'I Must Have That 
Man', Goodman, following Lester in the solo order, illus- 
trates the use of the augmented chord of the dominant 
seventh resolving on the tonic chord as it emerges at the end 
of the middle eight, returning to the first theme. There is 
nothing bad about Goodman's phrase, but when it is com- 
pared to Lester's use of the same device, one realizes more 
clearly than ever how profoundly Lester changed the aural 
shapes of improvisation. Time and again by augmenting the 
fifth of the dominant seventh chord Lester imbues an other- 



wise stock phrase with the spice of the unexpected. Once the 
effect has been achieved it seems all to have been so simple 
that anybody might have thought of it. 

In his clarinet solo on the Billie Holiday recording of 'The 
Very Thought of You', Lester's demonstration of the happy 
use of this device sounds a childishly simple affair, mocking 
in its casual ease and yet thrusting the short solo, whose 
climax it is, far beyond any other instrumental fragment on 
the record. Since Parker and Gillespie the augmented fifth 
of the dominant seventh chord, inclined somewhat towards 
sentimentality, has fallen from grace, forgotten in the 
triumphal march of the chord of the flattened ninth used in 
its stead, underlining once again that the Lester Young 
revolution was a shortlived one, harmonically at least remoter 
from the upheavals of the bebop age than criticism has 

Lester seems also to have been the first of the jazz im- 
provisers to have appreciated the dramatic possibilities of the 
use of the major sixth in the minor triad, or the chord of the 
minor sixth as it is known in jazz club parlance. Since Lester's 
zenith, the minor sixth has gone the way of the augmented 
dominant chord, almost totally eclipsed by its modernist 
cousin the minor seventh, so much more easily adapted to the 
chromatic movements of modern jazz. But the slight incon- 
gruity of the major sixth against the minor third in the minor 
triad was ideally suited to the element of uncanniness in 
Lester's melodic conception. 

The chord of the minor sixth is, of all the discords in music, 
the easiest to associate with a precise emotional climate. It 
sounds to the lay ear somehow a little too sinister for a polite 
musical effect. It is no coincidence that when a motif was 
required for the incidental music to Barrie's supernatural 
romance, Mary Rose, it was the chord of the minor sixth that 
was employed to convey the effect of the ghostly shades 



calling the fey heroine away from earthly reality. Lester's 
thirty-two bar solo in the recorded minor-key trifle, 'Dickie's 
Dream', is a tour deforce in the use of the minor sixth chord 
to evoke spectral sentiments and create melodic shapes quite 
new to jazz. The whole solo seems to have been conjured up 
by some obscure process of legerdemain. 

One unfortunate result of this kind of originality was the 
succession of critical absurdities to which it gave rise. In an 
attempt to describe in terms of the layman what was musically 
quite simply understood, commentators sought wildly about 
for phrases to describe Lester's effect on them, emerging 
with gems like 'cerebral content' and 'abstract realism'. They 
were, in fact, bemused by Lester's tremendous melodic 
originality, and would have been most shocked had they been 
told that there were no new harmonic developments to speak 
of in his jazz. 

No doubt they would have been bitterly disillusioned and 
withdrawn Lester in a fit of critical pique from the list of all- 
time greats that non-practising critics are always eagerly 
compiling, omitted him from their dream bands and com- 
posed punitive essays proving that Jelly Roll Morton was 
more resourceful and Bix Beiderbecke more advanced. It 
might never have occurred to them that it was in its very- 
harmonic conventionality that the fascination of Lester 
Young's jazz lay. With the same meagre resources that had 
been at the disposal of the generation before him, Lester 
Young evolved a quite original and highly idiomatic style, 
one which boasted an independence of the familiar grooves of 
musical thought, enabling him to escape from the formal 
vocabulary of the time by the use of hitherto neglected 
intervals like sequential fourths and the use of the eleventh 
and thirteenth extensions of the dominant chord. 

Now the effect of the fusing of all these diverse elements 
into one style was an important one not only for all jazz 



saxophone playing, but for all improvisation and the inter- 
pretation of scored parts. It is difficult to imagine what a 
modern big band would sound like today had there been no 
Lester Young. It is even more difficult to imagine what the 
current trend might be had Lester never left Kansas City or 
the Fletcher Henderson episode crushed his spirit. 

What would the Tour Brothers' conception be had Stan 
Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn been disciples of Hawkins 
instead of Young? It is self-evident that a Lester phrase 
played by Hawkins would lose most of its caustic authority, 
while a Hawkins rhapsodic sequence might sound very much 
like a lampoon of itself played through Lester's tone. Of 
course, the question of what 'Four Brothers* would have 
sounded like had the saxophonists involved been Don 
Byas, Lucky Thompson and Paul Gonsalves is too 
rhetorically absurd to consider, for had there been no Lester 
Young, 'Four Brothers' would never have been scored in the 
first place. There would have been no Wardell Gray, no Stan 
Getz, no Zoot Sims, no Al Cohn, certainly no Paul Quini- 
chette or Allen Eager, in fact no school of modernists of 
that kind as we know them. Even the tenor players of ultra- 
modernism, even the Rollinses and the Coltranes, inherit a 
certain ghost of a honk and a way of breaking down the 
arpeggio from Lester, although of course they owe a far 
larger debt of inspiration to Charlie Parker. 

Lester's influence has been so profound that it is literally 
impossible to chart it. His was a style more literate, more 
lucid than that of any jazz musician before him, and its effect 
quite different from the impact of previous great stylists in 
jazz, whose influence was, with the obvious exception of Louis 
Armstrong, generally confined to their own instruments. 
Lester's personality permeated the entire jazz cosmology. It 
was not just that he had shadows like Eager and Quin- 
nichette, or even that originals like Getz and Gray owed a 



great debt to him. The very methods of ensemble phrasing 
can be traced back to him. He has influenced thousands of 
whole orchestras and exerted an influence on jazz so vast and 
so thoroughly assimilated that today the fact that he once 
preached a gospel at all is inclined to be forgotten. 

No matter whose company he kept, before and after, and 
that company is comprehensive enough to include both King 
Oliver and Charlie Parker, Lester Young was essentially a 
product of the Swing Age, the dominating melodic giant in a 
period unusually rich in melodic giants. The name usually 
quoted as symbolic of the Swing Era is Benny Goodman, but 
Goodman really belongs to a stage or two further back in jazz 
evolution, to the group of white musicians conveniently 
dubbed the Chicagoans. The fact that Goodman, abetted by 
Harry James, Ziggy Elman and a few other second-class jazz 
talents, once induced some high-school children to dance in 
the aisles of a New York theatre has tended to obscure the 
fact that Goodman always remained a Chicagoan, no matter 
what classical works he may have recorded, and no matter 
which modern musicians he may have employed as penance 
for having insulted the whole modern movement. The 
difference between Goodman's musical origins and Lester 
Young's is clearly discernible in the Wilson-Holiday pick-up 
sides, in which Lester is noticeably thinking in a different 
dimension to Goodman. In one sense the now-legendary 
recording of the Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert of 1938 
really does have historical significance, although not for the 
puerilities of *Sing Sing Sing'. The recording of 'Honey- 
suckle Rose' on the all-star set is a truly remarkable illus- 
tration of Lester's advance on anything existing in jazz at that 

The background of the Swing Age coupled with Lester's 
inborn gifts produced in abundance one quality hitherto 
almost unknown in jazz. Humorists and buffoons there had 



always been, but the aphoristic style of Lester was something 
quite new. He brought the qualities of wit into the jazz con- 
text. The cultured jazzman might laugh out loud at Fats 
Waller, but he would smile the ghost of a knowing smile on 
hearing the subtleties of Lester. He is the great epigramma- 
ticist of jazz, which is no doubt why he is more widely quoted 
than any other musician today, so much so that many of the 
innocent younger plagiarists are not aware they are quoting 
at all, so integral a part of the jazz vocabulary have Lester's 
aphorisms become. 

All these facts might have been duly recognized without 
much confusion had it not been for the peculiar circumstances 
of Lester Young's recognition as an original stylist and the 
manner in which his musical personality asserted itself. 
Because of this confusion, his place in jazz history has not 
been as clearly defined as it might have been and ought to be. 
A high percentage of his admirers are either paying lip- 
service to a legend or privately denouncing Lester for the 
comparatively inferior quality of his work in the 19505. One 
fact must be appreciated fully if Lester is to be placed in his 
rightful historical bracket, the only vantage point from which 
his influence may be understood. Those who talk of Lester 
Young really mean the young Lester. In the early 19408, 
about the time when Lester and the Basie band parted com- 
pany, the compact beauty of his style had already begun to 
decline. By the late 19403, time and the disruptive influence 
of a younger generation of modernists had combined to break 
up the classic lines of the vintage style. The distilled purity of 
tone was gradually subsiding into a grosser sensuality which, 
ironically enough, was faintly reminiscent of the by now 
almost dtmode Hawkins. Human fallibility, once so divorced 
from his playing, now made its belated appearance. 
Sometimes a low Bb disappeared completely, obliterated by 
the sound of hissing breath. Squeaks hovered on the rim of 



audibility. The sheen faded. Where once the man and the 
tone had seemed to merge into a purity of production never 
before heard in jazz saxophone playing, the sound now 
became a little flatulent, the fingers a shade less nimble, the 
mind a fraction less inventive. By 1950 the entrancing world 
of sound of the Basie days had quite vanished. 

It was at the time of this decline that the pseudo-analysts 
got to work on him, critical appraisal having finally stumbled 
on to the truth of Lester's talent. When it was facetiously 
said of certain idolators that they sounded more like Lester 
Young than Lester Young did, there was a modicum of 
ironic truth in the claim, for by the time players like Eager 
had thoroughly assimilated all the mannerisms of Young's 
style all mannerisms, that is, but not the originality 
Lester himself no longer played that way. Having bequeathed 
his new concept to the next generation of musicians, he 
moved on into gentle decline. The once fulgent style had 
become blemished by artistic lassitude and the advancing 
years. When, on his 1953 visit to Britain, someone rather 
unkindly asked him why he no longer played 'that way', he 
shrugged his shoulders and quoted his age. 

Ever since, Lester, a vitally significant figure on the land- 
scape of jazz history, has presented an embarrassing problem 
to those around him. Surrounded in his last days by the 
advocates of a far more violent revolution than his own, and 
spiritually at least in sympathy with them, indeed at times an 
active collaborator, Lester remains nonetheless irrevocably 
beyond the pale of the Parker-Gillespie modernism. On 
the JATP recording of * After You've Gone', featuring 
among others Lester and Charlie Parker, the same gap 
of an evolutionary stage may be observed that was so 
evident twelve years before between Lester and Benny 
Goodman, only now it is Lester bringing up the artistic 



Strictly speaking, Lester is no modernist in the sense that 
Parker and Gillespie were modernists. Lester did little to 
corrupt the harmonic innocence of his times. The progres- 
sions he employed were basic enough for the veriest diehard 
dixielander to follow. The complexities of the post-war era 
were most antithetical to the stringency of his style, and he 
remained till the time of his death a kind of elder statesman, 
sympathetic to the spirit of change but either unable or dis- 
inclined to follow those changes himself. But if we remember 
once again that modernism is not a style but an attitude, there 
is a sense in which Lester is the most modern of musicians, 
having wrought changes so profound that many people today 
fail to realize that things were ever very different, or that 
Lester was once maligned for attempting to establish 
heretical devices which have long since become accepted 
principles. Self-appointed judges, intimidated by the daunt- 
ing enormity of Lester's retrospective reputation as a master, 
have therefore been unable to believe their ears or trust their 
judgment on hearing Lester in the last years. *Is this the man/ 
they ask, "who Is supposed to have revolutionized jazz saxo- 
phone playing? Is this the man whom every other great 
saxophonist mentions in his short list?' and they retire 
nervously to reconcile their own conclusions with the 
reputation they have heard about. 

The explanation is simple. Recognition of originality in 
jazz sometimes takes a long time. In Lester's case the critics 
were only about fifteen years too late, not bad at all for the 
critics. When they did finally wake up they showered all the 
adjectives over him and brought him the acclaim he deserved. 
Only by now he was an older man no longer distinguished 
for the quicksilver felicities of his technique. Sometimes when 
I suggest that the later Lester was inferior to the earlier 
Lester I am misconstrued. I am accused of being a Lester- 
phobe. I am told I do not understand the beauty of what 


Lester was doing, and that I seek for perversity for its own 
sake, just as people used to say Lester was doing in the 19305. 
If anything I am a Lesterphile, not a Lesterphobe. And when 
I talk of decline I do not mean that a once great player was 
reduced by the years to gibbering incoherence. Lester always 
remained a fine saxophonist, as Benny Goodman might have 
said. The style of the later years was just as original as that 
of the Basie days. It too had its felicities and its beauties. But 
the difference was that by now it was no longer the most 
adventurous or the most exciting saxophone playing to be 
heard. And its motif was no longer bland virtuosity but 
weary sentiment. It was eminently listenable but it was 
already a backwater now. The difficulty is that in order to 
recapture the thrill of the first discovery of Lester the student 
has to have a sense of the historic about jazz, by which I mean 
he must have an adjustable ear. He must be able to sit down 
before his turntable and wear his 1936 ears. 

When a man is a revolutionary the implication is that he is 
attempting to overthrow a status quo. The feel of the era in 
which Lester sprang up can easily be acquired by a study of 
Hawkins, the Goodman Quartet, Benny Carter and the 
Hodges small groups. Then, and only then, does the sub- 
limity of 'Twelfth Street Rag', the first < Lester Leaps In' and 
'Taxi War Dance* become clear. The first recording Lester 
ever made was 'Lady Be Good', in 1936. A comparison 
between that recording and, say, Goodman's 'Avalon' or 
Hawkins' 'Crazy Rhythm' reveals how fresh and daring the 
early Lester could be. 

Just as surely, the Lester recordings with King Cole and 
Buddy Rich some years later reveal a gradual slowing down 
of the creative pace. From then on, the decline is gradual but 
unmistakable, until with the reunion with Teddy Wilson in 
1956, Lester is revealed as a tired man whose vocabulary has 
shrunk in inverse proportion to his gathering deification. It is 



natural enough for people to assume that a musician's 
prowess is at its peak at the moment when his reputation 
stands at its highest, because the time-lag in the workings of 
the cumbersome machinery of recognition is not a factor that 
automatically occurs to mind. In Britain to this very day, the 
recordings of the era of the LP are usually taken to be those 
that show the best Lester Young. Even in the Memorial 
Volumes issued by Philips after Lester's death, there is a 
track or two included where Lester does not take any solo at 
all, the compilers having confused him with Buddy Tate, an 
error so alarming that it suggests that even those who 
sincerely attempt to revive his vintage work cannot really 
recognize it when they see it. It is rather as though a student 
of Edwardian literature were to avow a deep respect for the 
novels of H. G. Wells without ever having read Kipps or 
The History of Mr Polly. 

That is the paradox. A great musician is revered for music 
that is rather less than great. It takes his best music twenty 
years to win intelligent acclaim, by which time all the praises 
are lavished on later work that is very good without being 
epochal. By 1950 or 1960, the ear of the jazzlover had already 
been corrupted by the innovations of the bebop revolution, 
so that even the most thrilling originality of Lester stood in 
danger of sounding old hat. After all, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, 
Stan Getz and the rest of them did it all with rather more 
panache, if rather less originality, so why get excited about 
Lester? The answer is that no musician can be fairly judged 
and fully appreciated without careful consideration of the 
time element. Jazz moves so fast that even a misplacement of 
five years, or three or one, can disturb the balance of the 
evidence. The catacoustic tone with which Lester honked his 
way through the 19305 is one of the happiest sounds in jazz 
history. The detachment of the aphorist can be sensed in 
every phrase. The rhythmic buoyancy never flags. Above all, 



the stream of phrases somehow shaped ever so slightly 
differently from anybody else's, never seems in danger of 
drying up. The diatonic approach to jazz is usually within the 
grasp of those who know nothing of the mumbo-jumbo of 
musical terminology, but in Lester they encountered a 
player who brought to bear on this diatonic conception a 
mind devious and subtle, so that the most mundane of pro- 
gressions might emerge in strange uncanny garb. Lester was 
the first of the soloists to put paid to the Good-Time theory 
of jazz appreciation. His music was not the kind you could be 
bibulous about. It demanded full attention, developed sensi- 
bilities, some standard of musical intelligence. That is why 
musicians were so much quicker than anybody else to 
recognize his power. Unpalatable as the truth may be, 
musicians know more about the art of playing jazz than any- 
body else. 



* Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. 
He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three* 


BY A fluke of circumstance I came across the recordings of 
Billie Holiday under conditions I suggest were unique. To the 
ordinary jazz fancier songs like 'Mean To Me', 'I Can't Get 
Started', 'Body and Soul' and 'More Than You Know' are 
merely melodic shapes used as springboards for creative 
improvisation. They are songs without words or sentiments. 
Their titles are mere labels of convenience by which they may 
be identified in the crowded world of musical themes, 
exercises in musical abstraction whose personal character- 
istics consist purely in the style of their harmonic nuances. 
This is doubly true of the practising musician, whose rela- 
tionship towards them is precisely that of the aspiring 
sculptor towards a block of uncut stone. He is all too aware 
of their texture, their shape, and the tempos their con- 
struction implies, so that when he comes across a vocal per- 
formance of them he will often find them pedestrian and even 

But when I first encountered Billie Holiday's recorded 
version of 'Mean To Me' I possessed none of the question- 
able experience of the adult round which might have debased 



the currency of my critical faculties. Until I heard Billie 
Holiday sing 'Mean To Me' I was unaware that the song 
existed. This innocence had a curious effect. For several 
years I accepted these songs in the form in which Billie 
Holiday had introduced them to me. I sensed they were great 
jazz performances without knowing why, although looking 
back on it, I was no doubt charmed beyond all resistance by 
the salty appeal of the diction, the tactful poise of the 
accompaniments and above all by the exuberance of the 
rhythm. The Teddy Wilson-Lester Young-Benny Goodman 
pick-up groups were my first experience of art potent enough 
to induce me to try my own hand. It was their virtues which 
tempted me to enter the jazz world, to aspire towards the kind 
of musical expression which in the end was never achieved 
because it meant being as good as Lester Young. 

The jazz of the Wilson-Holiday groups was obviously 
related to the earlier jazz with which I was familiar, but it had 
about it a quality too subtle for me to have then defined. Had 
I known it, recordings like 'Laughing at Life', 'Sugar' and 
*He Ain't Got Rhythm* represented a stage in jazz develop- 
ment when the instrumental sophistication of its soloists was 
in perfect sympathy with the more adventurous harmonic 
conventions of the day. The imbalance between these two 
factors was more delicately poised than ever before or since 
in jazz, now approaching the stage when all the possibilities 
of diatonic harmony were being realized, the end product of 
an evolution as natural and as inevitable as the growth of an 

But the day I heard Billie Holiday for the first time I knew 
nothing of all this. All I was aware of was the fact that this 
jazz was texturally richer than any small-group jazz I had 
heard before, that it had managed in some impalpable way to 
ignore the impasse of the Chicagoans as though the impasse 
had never existed, which of course for musicians like Young 



and Wilson, Webster and Carter, it never had, and that some- 
how the brave piping voice of the singer lent the music an 
ironic edge which seemed suddenly to bring it much closer 
to external realities than it had ever seemed before. Some 
years went by and I became a musician. The songs I had 
learned from Billie Holiday went, lamentably, out of fashion, 
apart from a few timeless pieces like 'On the Sunny Side of 
the Street' and 'Pennies From Heaven'. *I Can't Get Started' 
was certainly popular in the scrambling, inchoate days of the 
New Jazz, but it was the 'I Can't Get Started' of a harmonic 
adventurer like Dizzy Gillespie, not the *I Can't Get Started* 
of a soloist like Lester Young, whose inner quietism came 
from an instinctive understanding that his style, by the time 
he recorded the tune with Billie Holiday, was now an artistic 
constancy, beyond the petty considerations of acceptance and 

The jazz of the later 19405 was the direct opposite of the 
pick-up music of ten years before, because it was vainly 
ambitious, self-consciously revolutionary, and somehow 
nervously aware that, arriving at a time when there were a 
few signs that the outside world might one day sit up and 
take notice, it was playing for higher stakes than any the 
Chicagoans or the Swing Kings had ever dreamed of. Too 
much of it was unrelaxed and therefore the direct antithesis 
of what Billie Holiday had already achieved. 

All of this was quite understandable. It was precisely 
because of the mastery of men like Young, Wilson, Carter, 
Eldridge, Hodges and the rest of the sidemen of the Wilson- 
Holiday recordings that the generation succeeding them was 
inspired to dump the entire legacy of the 1930$, at least for 
a while, and seek the broader harmonic licence that alone 
could enable them to escape from definitive solo patterns like 
Hawkins' 'Body and Soul' and Lester Young's 'Twelfth 
Street Rag'. It is a process repeated in all the arts periodically. 



The Youngs and the Hawkinses had exhausted the form for 
the time being, and the only alternative to stagnation was 
extension of the form. 

There were several unfortunate by-products of this up- 
surge of activity. One of them was the eclipse of the Wilson- 
Holiday era, its leading figures, its conventions, even its 
repertoire. Practically the whole of Billie Holiday's recorded 
output consisted of songs which were now considered by very 
young men to be distinctly pass& The last word in vocal pro- 
fundity was considered to be 'Lover Man', a record which 
flattered only to deceive, for it seemed to promise the modern 
equivalent of Billie Holiday's vocal formula of the 19305. 
On the surface the formula was indeed the same, with Parker 
and Gillespie playing the roles of Lester and Buck Clayton. 
The performance was still built around the singer. As time 
proved, Sarah Vaughan was soon to turn her back on this 
kind of jazz record, while the nearest thing to a replacement 
for the vintage Billie was Billie herself, now ten years older 
and an artist of an entirely different character, as we shall see. 
But when modernism first burst upon the astonished ears of a 
generation of jazzlovers bred on the resolving felicities of 
Benny Carter and Benny Goodman, the casual master- 
pieces of the Vocalion sessions seemed quaint in their 

Modernism slowly became part of the status quo. As the 
necessity for the ruthless anarchy slowly faded away, the New 
Jazz became absorbed into the main body of the music, as 
inevitably it had to be. It was no longer an outrageous joke 
for the new masters to borrow the material of the old ones. 
Miles Davis could record 'Bye, Bye, Blackbird', with a per- 
fectly straight face, even perhaps too straight a face. Once the 
revolution became respectable, it could afford to become 
reasonable too, and acknowledge officially what its leading 
lights had always acknowledged privately, that there was a 



great deal worth salvaging from the generation it had opposed 
so violently. 

The enlightenment permeated every stratum of jazz 
activity, until the inevitable happened. I was working in a 
sextet on one night in a London jazzclub when somebody 
produced an orchestration of 'Mean To Me*, complete with 
chord symbols. It was then, twelve years after, that it dawned 
upon me exactly what it was Billie Holiday had been doing 
with such material. The tune itself now sounded like the work 
of a dullard, its harmonies uninspiring and its melody 
fraudulently sequential. I realized that when she recorded it 
in 1937, Billie Holiday had produced a version so rich in 
creative resource that it had instantly become for me the 
definitive edition, without my realizing that I had rejected 
anybody else's. 'Mean To Me', to do it justice, is really quite 
a charming song, skilfully constructed and reasonably helpful 
to a jazz musician, but it is something vastly removed from 
Billie Holiday's recording of the same name. 

I cannot exaggerate the shock to my musical system this 
one harmless orchestration caused. My emotions were a con- 
fused mixture of the indescribable rapture the professional 
feels when his innocence, long since forgotten, is suddenly 
handed back to him on a plate, and genuine bewilderment 
that I should have ever joined in the wholesale renunciation 
of the 19305 my own generation seemed to think was obliga- 
tory for playing modern jazz. 

From then on my enthusiasm for Billie Holiday became a 
rational as well as an emotional thing, for I was now able to 
understand with the wisdom of hindsight what I had only 
vaguely sensed many years before. Of course the experience 
with 'Mean To Me' repeated itself with many other songs in 
the Holiday repertoire. I had literally to learn these tunes all 
over again. Sometimes the wrench was too much. I never 
could, for instance, reorientate my thinking far enough to 



accept the written line of Til Get By', because Billie's version 
had for too long been the true one for me, the first version of 
any musical performance being the one which for obvious 
reasons makes the deepest impression. 

And the conclusion I eventually came to was that Billie 
Holiday is one of the most significant jazz artists who ever 
lived, more significant by a thousandfold than many of the 
mimetic artisan craftsmen whose nuances we all strove to 
acquire as fashion changed, that she was one of the most 
remarkable natural musicians jazz has seen, so natural in fact 
that it is very doubtful whether she was ever fully aware of it, 
and that in being obliged to use words at certain pitches in- 
stead of just the pitches themselves, her unqualified artistic 
triumph was all the more remarkable because it required her, 
almost inadvertently, to prove the universality of jazz in a 
way no instrumentalist could possibly have done. 

The primary fact about the career of Billie Holiday is its 
purity. This is a truth so obvious and so unconditional that it 
often tends to be overlooked, or worse, taken for granted. It 
is an astonishing truth when considered in the context of the 
musical world in which Billie Holiday lived and worked. 
For a woman to sing for nearly thirty years without once 
bowing to the demands of the world of commercial music 
surrounding her sounds literally impossible when we re- 
member that most of her material was borrowed from that 
very world, a world that has never regarded jazz as anything 
much more than an undefended treasurehouse to be pillaged 
at leisure, with vast sums of money to be made out of sickly, 
bowdlerized versions. 

It may, on the face of it, appear unpardonable to claim as a 
virtue in the jazz art an integrity taken for granted in most 
others. After all, to claim respect for a singer merely because 



she refused to commit artistic suicide seems like a very 
negative compliment. But it must be remembered that Billie 
Holiday's position was unique in that she had either to 
borrow the songs written for the popular market or elect not 
to sing anything at all. Because she had to use these songs, it 
was remarkable that she never succumbed to the stylistic out- 
rages to which many of them so obligingly lend themselves. 
Billie Holiday was chained by circumstance to the jingles of 
Tin Pan Alley, explaining the perception of Charles Fox's 
remark that while Bessie Smith drew on the poetry of the 
Blues, Billie Holiday had largely to create her own. It raises a 
vital point, this dubious material. It was the price that people 
like Billie Holiday had to pay for the handicap of not being 
household words, like Shirley Temple, Kate Smith and 
Rudy Vallee. The companies for which Billie Holiday 
recorded required some bait to catch the unenlightened eye 
of the record-buying public, for Billie was never issued in the 
Race series of recordings that followed a prescribed racial 
pattern. Her work was thrown into the open market, yet 
another musical result of a sociological phenomenon, the 
urbanization of the American Negro as he moved into the 
industrialized areas and fought for the same fruits of city life 
as his white counterpart. Billie was cut off from the rich 
poetic imagery of the blues on two counts, the lack of demand 
for it among the audiences on which companies like Vocation 
had their eye, and her own environment. There were no 
cotton fields in Baltimore, but there were plenty of clubs and 
dance halls. 

That was how Billie Holiday came to record tunes like 'If 
You Were Mine' and 'Me, Myself and F, which, left to the 
kind of performers for whom they were probably intended, 
would have been forgotten long ago. But Billie rose far above 
these limitations, making the instinctive adjustment between 
the triviality of the material and the grandeur of her own 


conception. It so happens that 'Me, Myself and T is one of 
the great vocal masterpieces of jazz. 

The first Billie Holiday recording sessions may be des- 
cribed as a false start. They typify the levity of approach that 
riddles jazz history in all its phases. Of the countless songs 
she might have sung, Billie works over one dismal little piece 
called 'Riffin' the Scotch', whose only virtue is its limitation 
to three minutes duration. Consider the situation. A young 
girl appears who possesses the rarest of all jazz gifts, the 
ability of a singer to hold her own with outstanding instru- 
mentalists. She gets the chance to record, with musicians as 
distinguished as Benny Goodman and the Teagarden 
brothers. The result is a lyrical outrage like 'Riffin' the 
Scotch'. It was Goodman's tune and Goodman's invitation 
to record, but it is depressing to think that the same man who 
could appreciate Billie's gifts well enough to ask her to 
the studio should then saddle her with some inane concoction 
of bis own. Another instance of Goodman looking for the 
main chance, another phase in the campaign to 'ride out the 
worsening depression'. 

The session is interesting in another way, for it was the 
only time Billie ever got mixed up with the older generation 
in a recording studio. Not that Goodman or the Teagarden 
brothers were old men, but they favoured a style that was 
already in the process of being superseded. Billie was 
essentially a child of the Swing Age, a purveyor of art music 
rather than the folk poetry of Bessie Smith. Her aura was 
essentially that of witty stylists like Teddy Wilson* In 
'Riffin' the Scotch', the accompanying group represents 
the tail-end of a dying era rather than the early flourishes on 
an emergent one. The jolly extroversion of the whole accom- 
paniment made quite the wrong setting. Jazz was passing out 
of the brash stage. Billie required the poise of a group more 
sophisticated than a Chicago ensemble with a few scored 



passages thrown in. It is a depressing reminder of the realities 
of the jazz life that the greatest singer of her generation 
should make her recording debut with a cheapjack lyric 
whose final cadence is the excruciating jocosity of a cork 
being pulled out of a bottle. 

This episode occurred in December 1933, and it was not 
for another eighteen months that the first masterpieces began 
to appear. In the summer of 1935 she recorded four sides 
much closer in spirit to the work she was to produce over the 
next ten years. Indeed these tracks are already typical of the 
vintage Billie Holiday. Not all of them were pitched in quite 
the same stylistic key, because one of them was virtually by 
the Benny Goodman Trio with a few extras thrown in. 'Miss 
Brown To You' opens with brilliant interplay between Good- 
man and Teddy Wilson, typical of the small-group series 
beginning to appear about this time. The rest of the session 
was rather different and established a pattern for all the suc- 
cessful Holiday recordings of the next few years. 'What a 
Little Moonlight Can Do* and 'I Wished on the Moon' 
allowed great freedom of movement to the front line of Good- 
man, Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster, and the result was 
vastly different from the background Goodman and the two 
Teagardens had provided for 'Riffin' the Scotch'. And in at 
least one of the four songs, *I Wished on the Moon', there 
was that kind of melodic literacy and lyrical imagination that 
the singer's talent merited. 

Now the formula for this session, being typical of all those 
that followed in the next three or four years, is worth examin- 
ing in some detail. The first important point is that usually the 
songs were not those one would normally expect to find in the 
repertoire of the jazzman of the period, due, of course, to 
the insistence by the business interests involved that at least 
the titles should mean something to a public which had 
never heard of Billie Holiday or Teddy Wilson. So that songs 



like 'I Wished on the Moon' would have to be mugged up in 
the studio, there being no orchestration to hand upon which 
either the musicians or the singer cared to waste any breath. 

In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Billie gives her 
own description of how these sessions were conducted. There 
are few more revealing passages in any book on jazz. The 
musicians arrived at the studio, sometimes not entirely sure 
who else was going to be there, but confident there would be 
no passengers. The selected song copy would be handed 
round, the chord sequence digested and the solos meted out. 
There was no music and very little plan. In other words, the 
recordings were quite plainly jazz performances which 
differed from the normal live session only in that they had to 
be restricted to three minutes playing time. In a most touch- 
ing paragraph Billie bemoans the passing of the madcap days 
without seeming to realize why they were gone forever: 

On a recent date I tried to do it like the old days. I'd never 
seen the band or the arrangements, and I didn't know the 
songs they had picked for me, and they wanted me to do 
eight sides in three hours. We were doing all standards but 
nobody could read the stuff; the drummer did nothing but 
sit there grinning; the music had wrong chords; every- 
body was squawking. We pushed out about nine sides like 
they wanted. But not a damn one of them was any good. 

The clue to the difference, not only between the early Billie 
sessions and the later albums, but between the entire jazz 
scene of, say, 1937 and 1957, is contained in that remarkable 
phrase of Billie's, 'the music had wrong chords'. In the sense 
in which Billie evidently meant it, there is literally no such 
thing as a wrong chord. I am not talking now of obvious 
solecisms like a major third in a minor triad, or the inclusion 
of the major seventh in a dominant seventh chord, but of 
altered chords, amended chords, substituted chords and the 



rest of the chromatic virtuosity which coloured the whole of 
jazz from the moment Parker and Gillespie forced themselves 
on to a world whose ear at first was too bigoted to listen. 

The reason why the session Billie refers to was a failure had 
nothing to do with the ineptitude of the arrangers or indeed 
the grin of the drummer. It was linked to the fact that the 
kind of recordings for which Billie Holiday is now revered, 
required for their creation an implicit assumption on the part 
of the musicians taking part that no prearrangement was 
necessary because the harmonic conventions to which they 
were adhering were sufficiently limited to preclude any 
possibility of clash or confusion. The men who supported 
Billie in the early days were the most talented jazz musicians 
of their era. In such a situation, written arrangements would 
have been folly. The Swing Age was the last time in jazz 
history that the music was still free enough not to require the 
stratagems of prearrangement. Ten years later Sarah 
Vaughan could not do the same thing because by now the 
music had lost its innocence and demanded planning of the 
most detailed nature. 

After the 'I Wished on the Moon' session, the recordings 
occurred regularly. A glance at the titles reveals that in theory 
both the singer and the instrumentalists should have been 
hamstrung by the mediocre quality of many of the songs. 'If 
You Were Mine* has a chord sequence well enough suited to 
the diatonic days of jazz, but the lyric is only passable. 'One, 
Two, Button Your Shoe' is a similar case, a reasonable 
harmonic structure but a lyric that is no more than an excuse 
for the counting-house gimmick. *Me, Myself and I', 'If 
Dreams Come True', 'How Could You', were none of them 
bad tunes, but hardly the kind of material to inspire a great 
artist to great performances. 

Sometimes her luck was better. * These Foolish Things', 
'Body and Soul', 'More Than You Know', 'You Go To My 



Head' and 'Easy Living 5 represent the higher musical reaches 
of the Holiday discography. But when one listens to all these 
recordings indiscriminately, the skilful songs and the average 
jingles, the peculiar truth emerges that for some reason they 
were all more or less as good as each other, that apparently 
Billie Holiday was independent of the material she used. 
Songs came to her as competent minor products of the 
popular music machine of the day went through the treat- 
ment, and emerged as the touching expression of thoughts 
and emotions their composers had never dreamed of, 'Me 
Myself and F sung by anyone else would be no more than the 
slightly cretinous but not objectionable expression of the 
infatuation of one person for another. The Billie Holiday 
recording is positively joyous. It abounds with the expression 
of a happy, helpless love, so that the triteness of the lyric 
disappears to be replaced by a wit of expression whose in- 
congruity with the original tune is almost comical. 

The process is even more impressive when it takes place in 
a worthier song. Billie Holiday's * Summertime', recorded 
with an Artie Shaw struggling desperately and not quite 
successfully to be a big bad jazzman, possesses a quality of 
worldliness which no other recording of the song remotely 
approaches. The poesy of Ira Gershwin is transmuted into 
the realist expression of something more resilient. 'Your 
daddy's rich and your ma is good lookin' J , has a mature 
felicity about it that somehow enhances the phrase beyond all 
measure, reducing the conventional pseudo-operatic inter- 
pretation of the song to mere pap. 

The same is true of 'Body and Soul' which, although it 
departs from the small jazz group formula of the other 
records, is identical in its vocal freedom. When Billie sings 
the words, she invests them with an intensity achieved by the 
childishly simple device of singing them as though she meant 
them. The fact that she chooses to sing the lesser-known 



alternate lyrics on the last middle eight, the lines that begin, 
'What lies before me, a future that's stormy?* suggests that 
she must have given close thought to the meaning of the 
words before singing them. 

The woman herself was inclined to be a little disingenuous 
about this autobiographical facet of her art. 'I've been told 
that nobody sings the word "hunger" like I do. Or the word 
"love". Maybe I remember what those words are all about/ 
What she means is that she knows very well that the over- 
tones of a tragic personal life obtrude into every performance, 
but the curious thing is that these are not the only overtones. 
In some way suggestions of sweetness and light also become 
noticeable whenever she approaches a certain phrase or 

There are two recordings from this period alive with 
optimism and bravery of spirit. Neither 'Without Your Love' 
nor 'Laughing At Life' sounds like the kind of song to defy 
the years. The lyrics in each case are competently constructed, 
and 'Without Your Love' has a few couplets easier to 
criticize than they are to compose. However, anyone who 
looked through the song copy would expect no more than a 
passable vocal performance. Billie Holiday invests it with an 
astonishing vitality that cannot be explained away by technical 
analysis. Her first chorus is comparatively subdued, and gives 
way to solos by Teddy Wilson and Buck Clayton. But when 
Billie returns for the last middle eight, the performance builds 
to an emotional climax in which the voice transforms the 
melody into an exultant cry. Tm like a plane without wings*, 
sings Billie, and the written melody is almost abandoned. *A 
violin with no strings', she continues, and the performance 
becomes a triumphal statement. 

'Laughing At Life' is a valuable performance for rather 
different reasons. It demonstrates the nebulous process 
whereby an unplanned recording magically grows out of 


itself, so that in the end it does indeed have a form no less 
firm because apparently accidental. During the ^ first vocal 
chorus Lester Young complements the vocal line with a 
certain phrase which later appears in the last chorus as a 
formal riff behind the voice. When it first appears, in Lester's 
first-chorus accompaniment to Billie, it appears to exist for a 
fleeting moment before subsiding. But the idea evidently 
stayed inside the head of Lester, because at the end he 
repeats the phrase after trimming it down. The other mem- 
bers of the band join in and the effect lifts the vocal up on its 
shoulders, so to speak. Had an orchestrator attempted some- 
thing similar, the phrase would have lacked the light spon- 
taneity of the version of ' Laughing With Life' we actually do 
possess. A successful jazz performance of this kind always 
lives on a knife-edge of failure until the very last cadence has 
been struck. The riff effect fitting so happily behind the vocal 
is one of those thousand-to-one shots which come off more 
than once with Billie Holiday because of the superlative 
quality of the men supporting her. 

Some of these recordings from Billie's early days rank as 
the best jazz of their era. If the lay world, so readily fobbed 
off with imbecile corruptions of the term 'jam session*, really 
wants to discover something true about jazz, it has only to 
give a few hours of its time to the Wilson-Holiday recording 
of 'I Must Have That Man', a side which contains the very 
quintessence of the jazz of the period. The sentiment of 
Dorothy Fields' lyric is ideally suited to the tender dis- 
illusion of Billie's delivery, so constrained as she opens the 
first chorus. The vocal is followed by solos from Benny Good- 
man, Lester Young and Buck Clayton, which brings us to the 
most remarkable fact of all about this remarkable recording. 
Billie completes the first chorus, then retires in favour of the 
soloists, Despite the greatness of the musicians involved, the 
listener finds himself awaiting the return of the voice, a 



return that on this recording never comes. It is one of the 
most impressive tributes to her ability that Billie Holiday was 
able to form a link in a chain comprised of the most gifted 
musicians of the period without ever allowing the tension of 
the performance to sag. The essence of this whole group of 
recordings is that the voice, besides being preoccupied with 
second-class light verse, is also elevated to the status of 
featured instrumentalist. As soon as Billie changed the 
formula, as in time she did, something of the integrated 
purity of performance was lost. 

Why was the formula ever changed at all? Presumably 
because the professional status of the artist herself was 
changing. The 'Summertime* session was the first to appear 
under the name, 'Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra*, a studio 
fiction no doubt, but still some slight indication of the rising 
tide of recognition. That was in the summer of 1936, and by 
the spring of the following year, another session under the 
same official heading is beginning to show signs of an 
evolution away from the small informal jam session of earlier 
days. On 'Where Is the Sun' and 'I Don't Know If I'm 
Coming or Going', the instrumentation is almost identical 
but the musicians are cast in a far more subservient role. 
There is little solo time for any of them, for the performance 
begins and ends with the vocal, now the chief attraction. 

But the change was gradual and did not become the rule for 
some time yet. Indeed, the greatest triumphs of the informal 
sessions were still to come. January 25th, 1937, was a key 
date in jazz, history because it was the first time that Billie 
Holiday and Lester Young recorded together. So monu- 
mental were the achievements of this partnership that we are 
now half-inclined to regard this whole pre-war era as one in 
which Billie and Lester were perpetually working together in 
the studios. In fact, it was not till Billie had been record- 
ing for three years that Lester made his appearance in her 



discography, by which time the formula for the unrehearsed 
method had already been evolved. Lester was not always 
available, possibly because of the touring commitments of the 
Basie band, but from now on, whenever it was possible, he 
appeared on every Wilson-Holiday recording date. It is 
worth remembering that recognition of Lester's talent was 
still rare in those days, another hint as to the instinctive 
musical acumen of a woman with no formal training or 
instrumental experience. 

On the very first session they shared, the results were out- 
standing. Apart from 'I Must Have That Man', so typical of 
the best jazz of the day, there was 'He Ain't Got Rhythm', a 
little-known song of Irving Berlin's, on which Lester played 
one of the most cunningly wrought solos of his life. The lyric 
happened to possess just that degree of piquancy that Billie's 
voice could express so naturally. The time values she gives 
to the word 'equator' and her slightly unusual pronunciation 
of 'aviator' with which it rhymes, makes the whole phrase 
sound far wittier than it really is. Billie's insistence that her 
phrasing was strongly influenced by Lester's instrumental 
mannerisms is borne out by another track from the same 
session, 'This Year's Kisses', where Lester states the melody 
with thatblandelegancereflected later when Billie startstosing. 

From then on, the Billie-Lester antiphonies flowed from 
the studios with astonishing consistency. 'I'll Never Be the 
Same* is one of the most skilful of all because it demon- 
strates a facet of the Holiday style that may have been born of 
either of two factors, or perhaps a combination of both. 
Instead of singing the written melody over the first two bars 
of the second half of the first chorus, Billie dispenses with the 
phrase, which is unexpectedly chromatic, employing instead 
a simple device of her own. The whole impact of the first 
phrase is changed. In the original the line 'I'll Never Be the 
Same* contains a furious activity, but Billie amends it to a 


single note repeated to accommodate the syllables of the phrase. 
It was a similar gambit to the one she used in Til Get By', 
recorded earlier the same year, although the latter was so drast- 
ically amended that for a bar or two one is not quite sure she 
is not singing a different song from the one named on the label. 

Now this paraphrasing of the written melody in an instru- 
mental manner was sometimes due to the limitations of her 
range. 'I'll Get By', for instance, has unusually generous 
intervals spanning its opening few bars, and it is very possible 
that Billie Holiday, always very much a middle-of-the- 
register singer, felt more comfortable compressing the range 
of the song rather than impose upon herself the slightest 
element of the wrong kind of strain, or have the musicians 
fishing around for appropriate keys. On the other hand, I 
believe that the kind of paraphrase to be found in Til Never 
Be the Same', which typifies all her work, has artistic rather 
than technical origins. Billie Holiday was removing the odium 
of a slightly precocious phrase, replacing it with one that is 
alive with all the candour and apparent simplicity of much of 
the best jazz. 

There is one recording from this period where the con- 
siderations of range really did cause her some hard thinking, 
so that on *I Cried For You', encompassing a jump of a 
major ninth in its first three bars, the group plays jazz first. 
Johnny Hodges gives a masterly statement of the theme 
which departs from the written line without ever ceasing to 
pay it deference, before Teddy Wilson plays an impeccable 
four-bar modulation folnng the key down a minor third for 
the convenience of the singer. Somebody like Sarah Vaughan 
would never have to resort to such tactics, which is why she 
is able to sing a tune like 'Poor Butterfly', again with a 
demanding range, without resorting to the anti-climactic 
device of dropping down an octave to avoid a crisis of pitch. 
But what handicap is a restricted range when the act of 



compression can. achieve such felicities as the remoulding of 
the first phrase of Til Never Be the Same' or the complete 
recasting of the melodic line of 'I'll Get By'? 

Much later in her career, when the ravages of a desperately 
unhappy life were beginning to tell, her range shrank much 
more seriously, so that in singing old stand-bys like 'Body 
and Soul' and 'These Foolish Things', she dropped her key 
by a tone or sometimes more. But by then her voice had 
changed so profoundly in character that she was a different 
kind of artist altogether. The great virtue of the recordings 
from the first period was their heart-lifting optimism, a certain 
buoyancy of spirit which made the listener feel an affinity for 
a disembodied sound whose owner he mightneverhaveheard of 
before. I am convinced that for much of the time Billie was 
not consciously aware of what she was doing while she was 
doing it. To her, singing was not so much the exercise of an 
artistic function as the natural means of expression towards 
the world. This relationship involving the mechanics of making 
music is common enough among the best instrumentalists, 
but certainly no singer since Bessie Smith could be said to 
need to sing as desperately as Billie Holiday. The casual 
effects she threw off would be psychological masterstrokes 
had they been thought out and planned ahead. As it was, 
they remained emphatic triumphs of intuition, 

One of the most affecting examples occurs in the Holiday 
recording of 'What Shall I Say?', a deceptively simple- 
sounding little melody with one of those invisible dynamos 
built into it so that one has only to play it as written with a 
modicum of rhythmic understanding to produce a reasonable 
jazz performance. In the lyric the following lines occur r 

What shall I say when the phone rings 
and somebody asks for yoti? 
They don't know I ask for you too. 
What shall I say? 



The vowel sounds at the end of the second and third lines 
could be awkward to sing. The word 'you* is included twice, 
but with obviously different stresses, and at very different 
points in the line. Moreover, the second *y u> occurs im- 
mediately before the word rhyming with the first 'you*. It is 
not a clumsily written lyric, but it might have been con- 
structed with rather more consideration for the singer than 
the writer has shown. There are a dozen ways round the 
problem. Billie Holiday's is the best, as well as the simplest 
of all. She pronounces the first 'you* in the normal way, 
doing the same with the word 'too' which rhymes with it. The 
second 'you' she simply changes to *ya*, thus eliminating any 
danger of idiotically echoing vowel sounds. 

But the mere technical process is not what is important. 
Probably Billie never even considered it. She must have 
come to the amendment of the second *y u ' by an entirely 
different path, and when we listen to the recording it is very 
obvious where that path lay. When that second 'you' occurs, 
changed to a *ya', the whole performance suddenly stops 
being a formal musical exercise and instead confronts the 
listener with a human statement, directed specifically at who- 
ever happens to be present. There is an amazing colloquial 
candour about that second 'you', born of the ability of the 
woman singing it to make the tritest lyric a valid statement of 
emotional experience. When 'ya' appears, one suddenly 
realizes with a disturbed shock of surprise, that Billie is 
experiencing the lyric dramatically as well as musically, so 
that the finished product has a depth of sensitivity unknown 
to other women singers since Bessie Smith. 

Sometimes the ability to make a certain phrase, or word, or 
perhaps just a syllable, shine with a fresh lustre, seems to be 
a lucky shot in the dark, but it is really part of a system no 
less comprehensive because it happens to be subconscious. 
Billie Holiday, who never suggested she might know of 



factors in a poetic performance like mantic overtones, had an 
infallible instinct for evoking these overtones every time she 
stepped up to a microphone. In 'Blame it on the Weather', 
an obscure pop song recorded in January 1939, with Wilson, 
Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge, she sings the phrase, "they'll 
see through me like glass', delivering the last word in such a 
way as to rehabilitate it, investing it with all its translucent 
qualities. The word flashes and shimmers with a crystalline 
brilliance, transmuting a commonplace simile into a shaft of 
genuine poetry. This ability to restore to tired words the 
vitality they once had, abounds throughout her work and is the 
keyto several truths about her style, especially its inimicability. 

There are surprisingly few instances where she actually 
creates a specific melodic phrase of the kind one used to find 
in the quaint old series, Tifty Hot Licks'. Her improvisations 
can hardly ever be torn out of context because they are rather 
affairs of stresses of syllables, subtleties of phrasing, regroup- 
ing of notes* None of her inventions are as elaborate or as 
ambitious as, say, Sarah Vaughan's celebrated version of 
'Body and Soul', which is better compared with instrumental 
versions like those of Hawkins and Red Allen than it is with 
Billie Holiday's. The Sarah Vaughan 'Body and Soul' is 
highly ingenious rather than inspired. It accepts the challenge 
of modern harmony with brilliant resource, but it reeks of 
the midnight oil in a way that none of Billie Holiday's per- 
formances ever did. The difference between them is the 
difference between a perfect abstraction and a slice of 

Now and then a whole phrase does leap out of its context 
into the memory purely as a fragment of musical invention, 
like the rephrasing of the notes of *a telephone that rings* in 
the 1952 version of "These Foolish Things', recorded with one 
of thejATP concert parties. More typical is the way she 
remoulds an entire song, flattening a phrase here, stretching a 


time value there, reducing the arpeggio phrases to the very 
bone, slipping in a grace note which just so happens to be one 
of the most important harmonies of the chord. 

In 'One Two, Button Your Shoe', made in the vintage 
days with Bunny Berigan and Irving Fazola, she virtually 
abandons the written line completely, using the harmonies 
whose names she did not know, to build a new, sleeker 
melodic line which reduced the number of pitches by more 
than half, until a phrase like *tell me you get a thrill', origin- 
ally linked syllable by syllable to the arpeggio of the major 
seventh with the major sixth thrown in to make up the 
number, emerges through the voice simply as the actual note 
of the major seventh and not its arpeggio, repeated four 
times, exactly as Lester Young might have played it, or any 
competent jazzman of experience. The next phrase is identi- 
cal except that the major seventh chord now becomes the 
dominant seventh, whereupon Billie promptly performs the 
same trick a semitone lower, giving form to her variations 
just as though she had swotted up the harmonies from the 
textbooks the night before, when really she is trusting to her 
ear and her taste. 

No jazz musician, whether he uses his vocal chords or an 
instrumental keyboard, can be taught this kind of invention, 
It is the fruit of instinct wedded to experience, and therefore 
remains exclusively the possession of the man who spends 
most of his life weaving instrumental patterns round chord 
sequences. From people with no instrumental training it is 
unfair even to expect it, which is why Billie Holiday is 
unique in all the annals of jazz. 

Because of the apparently nebulous nature of this art of 
making jazz, a process impossible to convey by teaching or by 
writing down in congruous terms, or even recognizable with- 
out a certain sympathy in the mind and heart of the observer, 
there are very few technicalities by which the theorists can 



blind us with their science when discussing Billie Holiday's 
singing. M. Hodeir may potter about indefinitely preaching 
to the converted and terrifying everybody else by the dia- 
bolonian cunning with which he computes the mathematical 
processes which go into the making of a jazz record, but his 
method founders in the face of a performance by Billie 
Holiday. There is nothing to compute, no inversions to 
detect, no daring passing chords to recognize by name, none 
of the contents of the usual box of vocal tricks which may 
easily be defined according to the rules of discord and 
resolution. There are a few Holiday mannerisms reducible to 
academic terms, but far less than in the case of the two con- 
temporaries whom most people mistakenly regard as her 
closest rivals, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. 

One habit in particular of Billie's has a wry relevance to her 
art because many people who know of it misconstrue it as a 
serious deficiency and even a source of embarrassment. On 
recordings spanning her entire career, Billie has a habit of 
falling away from the pitch of a note soon after she arrives at 
it. I have heard this device cited as proof of her inability to 
hold a note long enough to establish its pitch. But the 
musician who listens carefully to these falls soon notices that 
far from being technical solecisms, they are musically correct 
effects enhancing the dramatic impact of the lyric. It is not by 
accident that every time Billie falls away from these notes, she 
allows the fall to continue just so far and then arrests it at 
the next note down in the arpeggio of the relevant chord. She 
was especially partial to this effect when the chord in 
question was a diminished seventh, probably because her 
instinct told her that the intervals between the notes of that 
chord, all minor thirds, were not so broad that they might 
sound too protracted. This fall is one of her devices in the 
transmutation of Til Never Be the Same*, on the phrase, *a 
lot that a smile may hide'. 



However, this description of what is after all an elementary 
trick of improvisation does not do justice to the artist, because 
once again the device was a means to an end, the end being 
the expression of a kind of fatality in the world she sang 
about. The fall would express a wry sense of philosophic 
despair, as though even the happy songs were wise in the 
knowledge of sadder lyrics and sadder lives. There is a pro- 
found difference between this kind of stylistic sophistication 
and the harmonic dexterity of Ella Fitzgerald which, being an 
end in itself, finally reduces the art of singing to the deca- 
dence of gibberish. Instead of aspiring to establish the voice 
as a second-class instrumental keyboard, the singer should 
attempt to raise it to the highest jazz level because of its 
potential value in expressing specific ideas and emotions 
rather than the impressionistic gestures of most instrumental 
jazz. The gibberish vocal makes a mockery of communication 
instead of exalting it. The thought of Billie Holiday indulging 
in such antics is too far from reality to be considered for more 
than a moment It is useless your analysts telling you that 
Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan can follow the most 
intricate chord sequence through to the ultimate flattened 
fifth in the final tonic chord, hitting resolution after resolution 
with the same correctitude as any suburban music teacher. 
When the emotional content is nil, all the correctitude in the 
world will not save the performance from artistic damnation, 
an observation that applies more than ever in the world of 
modern jazz, with its daunting harmonic complexities and its 
pathetic pursuit of legitimate acceptance. 

In the early 1940$ Billie Holiday's career entered on the 
second of its three phases. Gradually the small-group 
formula was cast aside, being replaced by an accompanying 
orchestra playing decorous arrangements, neatly rehearsed 
and carefully tailored to meet the demands of the singer. The 
implication was quite dear. Billie Holiday was now the star. 



No longer was she one of a group of jazzmen creating varia- 
tions on written themes. The voice was now the focal point, 
apart from a few fragments thrown the way of the soloist, 
like Roy Eldridge's masterly eight bars in 'Body and SouP, 
used as a buffer between the end of the first chorus and the 
introduction into the performance of the alternate lyrics to 
the middle eight. From the purist point of view these record- 
ings have nothing like the value of the earlier masterpieces, 
which had Billie to offer and half a dozen others besides. But 
judged strictly as vocal performances they show no noticeable 
decline from the sessions of the middle 19305. 

I mention 'Mandy is Two* because it bears such forcible 
testimony to Billie '$ talent for endowing any old jingle with 
the grace of art. The lyric is a piece of sentimentality of the 
worst kind, difficult to endure without resort to rabelaisian 
noises. Its conquest by Billie Holiday is symbolic of her whole 
career. By showing she could make such songs valid in the 
jazz context, she was demonstrating in the most dramatic way 
that there is no material that cannot be used as jazz material 
if the artist involved is gifted enough, and that triteness itself, 
pitifully inferior to the realist beauty of the words Bessie 
Smith sang, may be invested with an emotional depth to move 
the most hardened of cynics. 

Billie, was, in fact, annexing a huge area of musical 
experience on behalf of jazz. She was reclaiming all the land 
of the popular song. Of course she was not the first to 
attempt this. Musicians had been borrowing silly jingles and 
making great jazz out of them for two generations. She was 
not even the first singer to do this. Louis Armstrong had 
actually made 'Song of the Islands' sound something like the 
real thing. But Billie was the first figure in jazz whose entire 
career was concerned with this type of performance of this 
type of material. She was dealing in the medium o^vords all 
the time, so that no matter how prejudiced you might be 



towards jazz, no matter how indifferent you were to the 
pathos of its cadences, you could at least understand what it 
was this woman was singing about. 

Usually she was singing about love, one of the two subjects 
in the world about which everybody in the world professes to 
be an expert. (The other is music.) She took these songs far 
more seriously than anyone else dreamed of doing. To other 
singers they were the excuse for standing up and simulating a 
few emotional platitudes. To audiences they bore no rela- 
tionship to reality at all, being the incidental music of a 
dream world where unrequited love wept crocodile tears, all 
expressed in mediocre verse. To the men who wrote the 
songs, they were factory products, designed to live for a few 
moments and then be cast aside, so that their component 
parts might be broken down and redesigned in fresh per- 
mutations. When Billie Holiday hit upon songs like Tve 
Got A Date With a Dream' or 'Please Keep Me in Your 
Dreams* the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley got more than 
they had ever bargained for and certainly more than they 

The use of more formal musical settings for her recordings 
raises a point about Billie Holiday which may never effectively 
be answered. In 1941 Lester Young made his last recordings 
with her. Many factors must have contributed towards this 
split. It was the period when Lester was severing his con- 
nections with the Basic band. It was also the time when 
Billie was sufficiently established, at least with a small coterie 
audience, to record under her own name. And possibly more 
important than either of these factors, the Swing Age was 
slowly grinding to a halt. In retrospect we can see quite clearly 
that during the early 19403 the Wilson-Young-Eldridge axis 
was gradually being replaced as the advance guard of jazz. 
The arrivistes Parker and Gillespie were soon to make the 
work of the Wilson generation so quaint in its comparative 


innocence that its eventual appeal was destined to be the 
elusive charm of a period piece. The era of the small jazz 
group busking away in the recording studio without much 
of a plan to guide the musicians, was slowly becoming no 
more than a glorious chapter of the past. 

However, the assessment of these factors soon becomes 
impossible, because the most dominant fact of all is one 
which by its very nature cannot be measured with any 
accuracy. The romance between Billie and Lester is one of 
those rare exquisite moments when melodrama and prosaic 
reality reach out and touch for a while. It is a truism of jazz 
history that the partnership with Lester Young, personal as 
well as professional, was the most vital association of Billie 
Holiday's career. It proved to be a working romance which 
was unusually fruitful, as connoisseurs well know. Were its 
two central figures artists of the same magnitude in any other 
sphere, then the task of the biographer would be eased con- 
siderably. But the mature approach to this kind of situation 
is consistently lacking in the jazz world, almost as though in 
the final reckoning the musicians were too self-conscious 
about the artistic possibilities of what they were doing to 
accept their own place with complete savoir-faire. It is under- 
standable enough that nobody will ever read The Collected 
Letters of Billie Holiday or The Private Correspondence of 
Lester Young> so it is left for the curious to wonder about the 
possible clues to the nature of the close friendship of the 
period's most remarkable singer and instrumentalist. 

It is too tempting to draw the obvious conclusions, to say 
that the two careers became one and were therefore never the 
same after the parting. Or that Lester's uncanny knack of 
complementing Billie's vocal phrases with his own aphorisms 
was the result not just of musical instinct, but of musical 
instinct enhanced by the passion of a love affair. There is a 
remarkable parallelism in both the rate and nature of their 



artistic declines that might be more than coincidence. But, 
then, Lester's oblique instrumental comments on a vocal 
performance may just as easily be found behind Jimrnie 
Rushing as Billie Holiday, and nobody has suggested that 
Lester ever felt unduly romantic about Jimmie Rushing. 
What failure there was in the careers of each of them seems 
to have been a failure of temperament, not the failure to 
meet a romantic crisis. 

Neither Lester nor Billie said anything very substantial 
about the effect of their relationship on their work together. 
Each one bore for the rest of his professional career the 
nickname the other concocted, and Billie did say, several 
times, that she always felt happier about a session when she 
knew Lester would be present. In her own words: 

For my money Lester was the world's greatest. I loved his 
music, and some of my favourite recordings are the ones 

with Lester's pretty solos Lester sings with his horn; 

you listen to him and can almost hear the words. People 
think he's so cocky and secure, but you can hurt his feel- 
ings in two seconds. I know, because I found out once that 
I had. We've been hungry together, and I'll always love 
him and his horn. 

Her reference to the vocal overtones of Lester's style 
establishes beyond reasonable doubt that there was some 
artistic as well as emotional interdependence. Lester's 
whimsy about always thinking of the lyrics to a song when 
you were improvising on it, is worth considering also. It is 
fair to assume that on recordings like 'Laughing At Life', 
'Without Your Love', 'Me, Myself and I', 'Mean To Me' and 
'Time On My Hands', on all of which Lester displays an 
instinct for what Billie is going to sing that is almost psychic, 
there were moments where the warmth of a private liaison 
spilled over on to the grooves of the record. Whatever anyone 



cares to imagine, the antiphony they created remains un- 
matched in all jazz, ranking among the rarest delights the 
music has to offer. 

The tragic decline of Billie Holiday's fortunes in the last 
years of her life is another of those commonplaces of jazz 
criticism about which nothing new of any relevance to the 
music can be said. The same element of self-destruction that 
shadowed the life of Charlie Parker is evident in Billie's 
career. Nobody has any illusions about the terrifying inroads 
on her talent made by the way she chose to live. 

Because her recognition, like Lester's, was a belated one, 
there is a tendency to revere anything she did in the last years 
of her life, to ignore conveniently the fact that by the middle 
19505 she had hardly any voice left at all. This decay may be 
charted in every detail throughout the recordings she has left 
us, but before it began to be serious, and after the break with 
Lester, she cut several more outstanding tracks, in some of 
which can be noted a brave attempt to behave as though time 
were not racing ahead at all. The sessions with Eddie Hey- 
wood are a case in point. 'How Am I To Know' shows her 
amending arpeggio phrases once again into a flatter line 
while still suggesting the framework of the original tune by 
stressing the more prominent of the harmonies. I'll Be See- 
ing You' shows how she could take a popular ballad, ad- 
mittedly of a superior kind, and transform it into something 
so touching that nobody who knows the recording can take 
anyone else's version very seriously. 

'On the Sunny Side of the Street', recorded with a rhythm 
section led by Heywood in April 1944, demonstrates the 
instrumental nature of her thought. The opening phrases of 
the first theme, containing the words, 'Take your coat and 
take your hat', and 'Can't you hear that pitter pat?', make use 
of only three notes in the diatonic scale, and are reminiscent 
of the remarkable phrase Lester played in his Aladdin record- 


ing of the same song a little later, when he makes a fall of an 
octave in the most unexpected place. 

Throughout the 19403 Billie continued to make records 
which although they were distinct in character from the pre- 
war hit-or-miss classics, were unmatched in their field, then 
and now. The more commercial nature of the orchestral 
backing may have won them a slightly wider fringe audience 
that she usually commanded, but the songs themselves com- 
promise not a single crotchet in their suitability to her style. 
'Good Morning, Heartache', with its rise from minor to 
major in its first eight bars, is typical Holiday material. But 
the side I usually associate with this period and this type of 
recording is 'Crazy He Calls Me', which, besides having an 
amusing lyric and an unusual melodic line, happens to 
possess a certain relevance to Billie's attitude towards her 
lovers in private life. In 'Lady Sings the Blues', there is more 
than one echo of the futile devotion of this song. 

The divine spark died very hard. Almost to the end she 
was capable of producing the kind of vocal vitality that can 
carry an entire accompanying group, as she did in a heroic 
version of *A11 Of Me', recorded with one of the earliest 
j ATP groups. As late as 1955 in Tlease Don't Talk About Me 
When I'm Gone', she eclipses Benny Carter, Harry Edison 
and Barney Kessell in the buoyancy of her delivery, pro- 
ducing another colloquial effect that lends an unexpected edge 
to the words. At the opening of the second eight she sings 
4 listen', dropping the second syllable an octave in a manner 
so casual that for a moment the performance ceases to be 
vocal and becomes speech instead. Both these tracks revive 
to some extent the glories of earlier times, with their rough 
insistence that jazz is a down-to-earth affair, making a 
strange contrast with the tonal felicities of Sarah Vaughan's 
commercial output and Ella Fitzgerald's faithful deadpan 
transcriptions of the Songbooks, 



In the last two or three years of her life the songs she chose 
to record were usually sad ballads whose lyrics time and 
again forced even the most objective of listeners to see the 
parallels with her private life, for by now her technique was 
so ravaged by physical decline that she was by all the normal 
rules, no longer qualified to sing any song demanding sus- 
tained notes and skilled control. But the normal rules applied 
to her no more at the end of her life than they had in the 
beginning. Whatever shortcomings there might now be in her 
breathing, her range and her pronunciation, she had retained, 
because it was a very real part of her personality, this unfail- 
ing ability to wrest out of every lyric the last drop of signifi- 
cance, and even to insert her own where the lyricist had 
failed to include it. As this was the very core of her art, the 
last recordings overcame their own technical limitations in a 
miraculous way. 

The British edition of 'The Billie Holiday Memorial' 
issued by Fontana, inadvertently demonstrates this. The 
album is made up of recordings from the pre-war period, 
except for the last track of all, made within a year of her death 
'For All We Know' is yet another song whose lyrics might be 
a personal statement as well as a vocal recitation. At first the 
contrast between this croaking, middle-aged voice and the 
purity of the young hopeful girl of *On the Sentimental Side 5 
is truly frightening. It all sounds like a clinical demonstration 
of the suffering and unhappiness of a woman whose life 
ended in circumstances as wretched as any person's could. 
There seems to be nothing left of a wonderful talent. But 
more detailed listening suggests that in its way, Tor All We 
Know' is the most moving statement on the whole album, 
not simply the grisly evidence of the decline and fall of a 
once-great artist. 

All the ballad performances of these last years must be 
approached in the same way. They must not be evaluated 



according to the normal rules of the vocal game, because to 
Billie Holiday it never was a game. Whether or not she was 
able to curb her mannerisms of style, now becoming parodies 
of themselves, whether or not she was aware she might be 
making a public confessional of her own decay, whether or 
not her breath was too short and the bar-lengths too long, or 
the control of her now drunken vibrato painfully ineffectual, 
she knew she was echoing the same lyrical sentiments she had 
expressed twenty-five years before. The raw material of the 
words had maintained their constancy, while the most vital 
facet of her art, the ability to make those lyrics sound pro- 
found, had not deserted her. 

Performances like Tor All We Know' must therefore be 
accepted as recitative with musical accompaniment rather 
than as ordinary singing. This is admittedly special pleading 
but it is entered on behalf of a very special jazz musician, and 
is in fact perfectly justified. It is always disastrous to present 
a record like Tor All We Know* to somebody who, being 
unaware of the details of the life and career of the singer, 
merely accepts it as another song by another crooner and 
finds, quite naturally, that the performance is excruciatingly 
bad, just as a prospective furniture buyer seeking polished 
walnut would recoil in horror from the trunk of an oak tree. 
By the criteria of that person, Billie's voice would impress 
only by its complete inadequacy to cope with technical 
problems that half the technicoloured sopranos of Hollywood 
could master without a thought, and usually do. 

But Billie's technical decline did not matter. In a way it 
actually made her one supreme virtue more evident than 
ever. At the very end she was barely capable of singing at all 
in the conventional sense. Her range had shrunk to un- 
manageable proportions. Her diction unconsciously parodied 
the girlish delights of the 19306, Her breathing was laboured* 
Of actual tunefulness, melodiousness, or whatever we care to 


call the beguiling rise and fall of the line of a melody, there 
was almost none. 

The trappings were stripped away, but where the process 
would normally leave only the husk of a fine reputation, it 
only exposed to view, once and for all, the true core of her 
art, her handling of a lyric. If the last recordings are ap- 
proached with this fact in mind, they are seen to be, not the 
insufferable croakings of a woman already half-dead, but 
recitatives whose dramatic intensity becomes unbearable, 
statements as frank and tragic as anything throughout the 
whole range of popular art. 

In view of this, it is understandable that the more ambitious 
the lyric, the more effective its delivery by Billie Holiday was 
likely to be, and that any song involving the pathos of past- 
ness, the relentless advance of time and nostalgic under- 
standing of the transient nature of experience, would sorely 
tempt us to equate it with the facts of Billie's life. Thus, 
'Speak Low', a song of rare sensitivity in its approach to the 
subject of the transience of love, takes on a further dimension 
when Billie sings it, becoming an authentic statement by the 
middle-aged on the brevity of youth. Each of the phrases, 
'Everything ends, the curtain descends', 'love is pure gold 
and time a thief, "our summer day withers away', 'our 
moment is swift', and above all the reiteration of the phrase 
'too soon' spring to life as they do under the touch of no 
other singer. So does one come across Don Pedro's words, 
'Speak low if you speak love' from Much Ado About Nothing, 
through the medium of jazz music and a dying woman. The 
depth of the performance is here indisputable, as we forget 
for a moment about singing in its conventional technical 
sense and hear instead someone using the jazz idiom to 
convey, subconsciously or otherwise the story of a life which, 
for all its towering artistic achievements, was ravaged, by 
self-indulgence and finally destroyed by drug addiction. 



Billie Holiday's gift of treating a lyric leads us finally to the 
most daunting speculation of all. If her touch was infallible, 
as it certainly seems to have been, what might have happened 
had the songs of her life been cast more artistically, or 
written with a finer sensitivity, or dealt with a range of sub- 
jects a little broader than the encroaching horizons of un- 
requited love? Naturally there must have been a limit to the 
range and depth of her expression, which was no doubt 
suitably employed when singing of the love of a woman for a 
man. Such themes were the very quiddity of her personality. 
But there is one incident in her career that gives us a strong 
hint of what might have been, where the lyric moves away 
for a moment from the boudoir and the 'two-by-four* she 
sings of in 'He's Funny That Way', and concerns itself with 
one of the crucial themes of the twentieth century. 

Most of Billie's best-known songs concern the inhumanity 
of men towards women. 'Strange Fruit' deals with the in- 
humanity of man towards man. It is a bitter and ironic com- 
ment on a race murder, worlds removed from the asinine 
demi-monde of gay amours and faithless lovers to which 
most popular singers are committed. Much is written about 
jazz as the music of social protest, but it is sometimes difficult 
today to see how it is protesting, or what it is protesting 
about, and to whom, especially now that it has purchased, at 
the price of its own blood, an evening dress suit, swopping 
its candour for respectability. In 'Strange Fruit' the mask is 
off and for a few minutes jazz is being specific. 

I do not know whether, according to the peculiar lights of 
the purists, 'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday is a jazz record. 
I do not know, or care, whether there are those who will 
shuffle uncomfortably and point out that 'Strange Fruit* is 
politically 'committed', and therefore no work of art at alt 
What I do know is that it would have been lamentable had a 
woman of her talent not grappled at least once in her life 



with so universal a theme. In so doing, she proved yet again 
that jazz music can extend its boundaries far wider than 
many of its patrons realize, and that there is literally no sub- 
ject not fair game for the jazz singer provided she happens to 
be a Bessie Smith or a Billie Holiday. 

For the whole point about Billie's 'Strange Fruit' is that the 
effectiveness of the performance lies not in the lyric but in its 
expression by a jazz singer. The effect could only have been 
gained by an artist steeped in the very quintessence of the 
jazz art all her life. The rise and fall of the phrases, the 
shaping of the words, the feeling for a dying cadence and the 
occasional slight amendment or variation of the melody, these 
are the exclusive weapons of the jazz artist. No other musician 
can possibly have access to them. They are, indeed, all that 
the jazz musician has to offer the world of music at large, and 
they cannot be acquired to quite the same degree in any 
other kind of musical environment. Certainly they cannot be 
reduced to a formula and sold at a guinea an hour, as some 
musicians attempt to do. If the jazz musician, in his pre- 
occupation with the conquest of harmony, forfeits these 
weapons, then he is behaving like the ship's captain who tore 
up the keel to make fuel for the engines. 

I believe that when Billie Holiday sings the phrase 'pastoral 
scene of the gallant South', civilization has said its last word 
about the realpotttik of racial discrimination in all its forms 
and degrees. The resigned bitterness and contempt with 
which Billie throws out the phrase, leaves nothing else to be 
said. And the bitterness and contempt are rendered by some- 
one who knew the hard truth of discrimination, even in its less 
deadly forms. 

There was once a film produced in Hollywood called 'New 
Orleans'. It was no better and no worse than all the other 
films from Hollywood involving jazz music in one way or 
another. In other words it was an insult to reasonable intel- 


ligence, a slur upon the artistry of every jazz musician who 
ever strode from the dominant to the tonic without falling 
flat on his face, a lie sold to gullible audiences at two and 
threepence a throw. The plot has passed into merciful 
oblivion, where it came from in the first place, but one well- 
remembered detail is that the heroine was a great singer who 
had a ladies' maid. The great singer had a voice like an 
understudy at a suburban operatic society. The ladies' maid 
was played by Billie Holiday. The incident is humorously 
recounted in 'Lady Sings the Blues', and ends with the com- 
ment, 'I never made another movie. And I'm in no hurry'. 

Her death occurred within a few months of the death of 
Lester Young, and since then the best work of both of them 
has been made available in Memorial albums. Valuable as 
these collections undoubtedly are, there is only one way to 
appraise Billie's career with any justice, the same way as one 
appraises Lester Young's, in strict chronological order. And 
at each stage of the journey, the listener should administer 
upon himself the corrective of the corresponding work of 
contemporaries like Goodman, Ellington, Hawkins and 

This kind of diligence reveals the fairly natural division of 
the Holiday career into three parts ; the first, covering roughly 
the pre-war period, produced infinitely the best jazz, largely 
because the conventions of the day were in perfect harmony 
with the talents of the musicians expressing them ; the second 
saw Billie emerging as the leading attraction of each perfor- 
mance, eliminating a great deal of the instrumental virtuosity 
going on in the background; the third traced her melodramatic 
fall into a premature grave during a time when she recorded a 
series of vocal performances, hardly vocal performances at 
all, which, despite their academic crudities, stand as heart- 
searing evocations of the jazz spirit. 

Throughout this career the material is drawn almost 



exclusively from outside the jazz world, which is essentially 
an instrumental world and cannot by its very nature produce 
good vocal material, any more than a Beethoven can induce a 
trombone to deliver verbal addresses. For the strange truth 
is that theoretically there is no such thing as a jazz singer. 
The very phrase is a contradiction in terms. The reason is 
the same one as the reason why there is no such thing as a 
two-hundred-year-old man. It takes too long. Life is too 
short for the production of either phenomenon. The jazz 
singer, were she to exist, would have to have all the intimacy 
with the abstract world of harmonic patterns which only a 
practising instrumentalist can ever acquire. She must be able, 
not only to sense the dramatic beauty of the resolution of the 
dominant seventh chord built on the mediant of the scale, as 
Billie does when she reaches the second bar of 'On the 
Sunny Side of the Street', but to understand how such an 
an effect is achieved, when it is grammatically permissible to 
achieve it, and how best to adjust the time-values of the 
syllables of the lyric, if and when she meets the other require- 
ments. For it is the grossest fallacy to regard a girl who sings 
merely as an instrumentalist who happens to be using her 
vocal chords instead of a keyboard. Singing of that kind, 
which Duke Ellington used to set up for Kay Davis, belongs 
in an entirely different category, one of relatively minor 
importance, by the very nature of the fact that the Kay 
Davis effect possesses neither the resonance of an instrument 
nor the ability to convey specific ideas through the medium of 

In a way the singer has a far harder task than any 
instrumentalist. The player who would improvise is limited 
only by the movement of harmony from bar to bar. He can 
use as many or as few notes as he pleases, so long as he lives 
by the inexorable rules of resolution governing whichever 
convention of jazz he happens to have been raised on. Not so 


the singer who, in addition to her subservience to the 
harmonies, has also to pay tribute to the number of syllables 
in each bar. If she decides to defy the syllabic content, she 
finds herself faced with one of three dilemmas, each more 
terrifying than the other. 

She may find herself obliged to stretch out a vowel sound 
like a piece of elastic, repeating it at several pitches until the 
time duration for that vowel sound is fulfilled. Ella Fitz- 
gerald often does this, and although she does it with technical 
expertise, the point of the matter has not the remotest con- 
nection with technical expertise. If a singer indulges in the 
Elastic approach, she may, when singing 'All the Things 
You Are', find herself confronted with the awkward fact that 
the first word of the lyric, 'You', occupies the first four beats 
of the song, the whole first bar, so that if she is to attempt the 
same skill as the musician does, at shaping phrases based on a 
harmonic underpinning, she is going to have to keep saying 
the word 'you' until the first bar is over. If, as is likely, she 
discovers that the chord which gives light and shade to that 
word is the relative minor common chord of the key, she will 
very likely sing the three notes of that triad, top them off with 
the root an octave lower, allow one crotchet to each note, thus 
filling in the correct time value of her first bar, and intone the 
sound 'Yoo-Hoo-Hoo-Hoo\ As instrumental jazz the effect 
is poor. As vocal jazz it is even worse, because it is placing 
an inoffensive little vowel sound on the rack of protraction 
and keeping it there until the metronome sounds the moment 
of release. 

Very often the singer, who works her way into this beguil- 
ing but deadly trap, makes a desperate attempt to work her 
way out of it again by finally refusing to acknowledge the 
sovereignty of words at all. Now she is free. Now she can 
create patterns in no way inferior to the creations of music- 
ians, except that, lacking the experience and craftsmanship 


which comes with the struggle for mastery over a tangible 
keyboard, she will lack also the good taste that usually comes 
with this ability. But at least she is now free. At what cost? 
A hair-raising one, reduction of the English language to 
absurdity, all on the pretext of making the human voice 
sound like an instrument. Singers who really desire the 
status of an instrument should stop making life difficult for 
themselves and everyone else within earshot, and learn to 
play one, just as the reactionaries who insist that every 
instrumentalist ought to simulate the sound of the human 
voice should have their vocal chords removed and a trombone 
rammed down their gullets instead. 

Gibberish vocals are the price the singer has to pay for this 
freedom to move about the realms of discord and resolution 
without the attendant drudgery of keyboard practice. No 
matter whether the gibberish is grammatically correct as with 
Ella Fitzgerald, or positively ingenious, as with Sarah 
Vaughan, it will still be gibberish whose emotive content is 
roughly nil, because it is hampered by all the drawbacks of 
the voice in jazz while abandoning its one great advantage, 
the achievement of catharsis through the use of familiar words 
and familiar combinations of words. 

There is a third way by which the singer might grant her- 
self this limitless freedom without resorting to gibberish, and 
that is to sing original lyrics to her own improvisations, 
always keeping in mind the distinction between the authentic 
jazz vocal and all other variations, from the recitation of jazz- 
with-poetry to nonsensical shooby-dooby tongue-wagging. 
The distinction to this. The jazz vocal, if it is not to deli- 
quesce into a gooey pool at the singer's feet, must for most 
of the time have one verbal sound for each note. The first bar 
of 'All the Things You Are', which has one note, has only one 
syllable, while the first bar of 'Carolina in the Morning', 
whose number of beats is the same, comprises, not one semi- 


breve but eight quavers, and has therefore been provided, 
most thoughtfully, by Gus Kahn with the eight vowel sounds, 
* Nothing could be fi-ner than to'. 

It is now that the enormity of what Billie Holiday was 
attempting begins to become apparent. For the last of the 
three alternatives, the composition of the singer's own words 
to match the movements of her own improvisations, has two 
painful riders. First, she must take care never to be man- 
oeuvred into an impromptu performance, because she must 
always be limited to the number of verbal compositions she 
has managed to complete. Second, she had better have the 
skill of the lyricists whose w T ords she is superseding, if she 
is not to be jeered out of court for vandalism. Annie Ross 
half-managed to do this, but her best recordings were not 
wholly self-supporting because the starting-point was always 
somebody else's solo, in its way more disastrous than trying 
to improve on Ira Gershwin and Lorenz Hart. There can 
have been few more telling exhibitions of inadvertent musical 
folly than Jon Hendrick's diseased-hip lyrics to Charlie 
Parker's solo on 'Now's the Time*. Anita O'Day will be 
remembered as the brave spirit who attempted a jazzbo- 
doggerel edition of Cole Porter's lyrics to 'You're the Top*. 
The double-talk marathons of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah 
Vaughan, amusing and skilful though they may be, have 
nothing to do with the art of remoulding a melody without at 
the same time strangling its lyric. 

What has all this to do with Billie Holiday? Everything, 
because she happens to have been the only woman singer of 
the past thirty years who achieved the impossible. Unless we 
understand what she was attempting, we cannot attempt to 
decide whether she succeeded and whether it was worth 
succeeding at. By a fortuitous combination of natural endow- 
ment and accidental circumstance, of environment and 
heredity, she actually did possess this rarest of all jazz 


instincts, the sense of form. She may have acquired it through 
early indoctrination with the work of Louis Armstrong and 
Bessie Smith, She may have inherited it from her father, 
Clarence Holiday, who once worked in the Fletcher Hender- 
son Orchestra. Probably she was born with it. She was that 
freak thing, the born or natural musician. Had she been a 
man, she would surely have taken to instrumental improvisa- 
tion as naturally as Teddy Wilson did, or Lester Young or 
any of the rest of her early collaborators. It is impossible to 
teach a girl what Billie could do, and even if it were it would 
take a lifetime to teach it. She just happened to have the 
natural musician's ear for harmonic movement combined 
with the actor's aptitude for word combinations. Plunged as 
she was, virtually from birth, into a jazz environment, her 
singing possessed an extraordinary validity intensified by the 
fact that throughout a tempestuous life she experienced on a 
personal level all the situations used as themes in the lyrics of 
the songs she sang. 

That is why it is artistic suicide for any other singer to 
attempt a facsimile, even were she to possess the same 
musical instinct. Billie Holiday's great performances are the 
fruit of her experience of her own life. The performances of 
her imitators are the fruit of their experience of Billie 



*. . . the technical history of modern harmony is a history of 
growth of toleration by the human ear of chords that at first 
sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of con- 
temporary professional musicians J 


THE advent of Charlie Parker caused more violent irruptions, 
more bitterness, more sheer apoplectic rage than that of any 
jazz musician before him. Before he happened, there was no 
serious split down the middle of the jazz ranks. After he 
arrived, it was no longer sufficient to claim you were a jazz 
fan. The term no longer had a precise or narrow meaning. It 
was now necessary to qualify the claim, to explain what kind 
of jazz fan you were, to commit yourself either to the music 
that was pre-Charlie Parker or the music he was playing. 
From now on there were to be two quite distinct jazz worlds, 
the ancient and the modern, and in the cut-and-thrust of the 
war which followed it escaped the notice of most people, 
musicians included, that it was by no means obligatory to 
choose one side or the other. Even in later years, when 
Parker's neologisms became standard jazz practice, the jazz- 
lover of catholicity who made no secret of his admiration 
both of Armstrong and Parker was aware he was admiring 
two very different kinds of music. 



The difficulty now confronts the commentator of Charlie 
Parker's career that it is literally impossible to say anything 
about its revolutionary nature without restoring to technical 
terms, a fact which in itself ought to give a broad hint as to 
what the fuss was all about. The phrase 'technical terms' only 
sounds forbidding, of course, to those who possess no 
musical faculty apart from the instincts of their ears, some- 
times prodigious. But to ask anybody to write about the 
nebulous processes of musical improvisation without at times 
resorting to technicalities is to ask him to make bricks without 
straw. After all, the technicalities themselves are no more 
advanced academically than, say, third year French grammar. 
It is only because so many people lacked the energy to 
acquaint themselves with the rules of the game of discord and 
resolution that Charlie Parker's modernism caused such an 
uproar in the first place. 

There are those who, conscious of their own lack of 
academic musical knowledge, defend their own opinions 
about jazz music with a claim on behalf of their own ears, 
that they can distinguish a felicitous resolution from a 
fumbling mess although they may not be able to give the 
technical names of the solecisms. They then dismiss the bulk 
of modern jazz on the grounds that their ears find it ugly or 
unintelligible and seem to think there is no more to be said 
on the subject. 

Now the ironic thing is that it is impossible to explain to 
such people why their technical ignorance is fatal without 
resorting to the technicalities themselves. The issue is further 
complicated by the fact that there is a great deal of truth in 
what they say, if it is applied to the jazz before Parker. In 
other words, the test they apply to the jazz they don't like is 
valid only when it is applied to the jazz they do like. 

This strikes many people as special pleading because of the 
implicit assumption that there is a fundamental cleavage 



between pre- and post-Parker jazz. If the unschooled ear can 
take in its stride the advance from King Oliver to Louis 
Armstrong and from Louis Armstrong to Roy Eldridge, 
which it usually can, why then should it not be able to pro- 
gress just as happily from Roy Eldridge to Dizzy Gillespie 
and Fats Navarro? And this is where the first of the techni- 
calities rears its ugly head. Musical harmony and melody may 
be diatonic or it may be chromatic, and, broadly speaking, the 
difference between the first forty years of jazz history and the 
last twenty is that the first was diatonic and the second 

Why should the layman be able to digest and appreciate 
diatonic movement and be nonplussed by chromatic move- 
ment? Surely it is not good enough just to say that chro- 
maticism is more complex than diatonic thought. After all, 
Eldridge was more complex harmonically than Armstrong 
but still presented no real difficulties to the unbigoted ear. 
The reason is that the difference is not so much one of degree 
as one of kind. With its advance into the world of chromatic- 
ism jazz moved once and for all into the realm of a specialized 
art form whose understanding and evaluation required 
specialist knowledge. 

The world we live in is a diatonic world. The Western ear 
is born to a predilection for diatonic scales, diatonic note 
groupings, diatonic resolution. The hymns we sing are dia- 
tonic. The vast bulk of the popular music pouring into our 
ears from the day we are born is diatonic. When we whistle 
or sing we whistle or sing diatonically, and although we may 
not know, when we reach the final cadence of our own casual 
musical performances, in the bath or walking along the street, 
that we are moving from the dominant seventh chord to the 
tonic chord, we will know instantly if someone else makes 
that movement in some other way. The alien notes will jar 
on our diatonic ears, and we will claim that somewhere there 



are wrong notes. By the very nature of our prevailing every- 
day environment, we are all educated in all the technicalities 
of music except the actual names of the terms. 

The question which often arises at this point is, if diatonic 
music is so acceptable to our ears, why on earth should 
musicians want to resort to something else? The question 
answers itself. The sound which is commonplace to a layman, 
is going to sound maddeningly tedious to a musician who has 
to live with the sounds he is making. It will be only a matter 
of time before the instrumentalist feels limited by working 
inside a diatonic frame, and begins to explore further afield. 

By 1940, the moment when jazz was poised on the brink of 
its flight into chromaticism, nothing seemed less likely than 
that very soon there would be a change of direction to trans- 
form the face of jazz. The music of the day was tired 
exhausted, a little disenchanted with itself. This is not to say 
that every jazz musician was tired, exhausted, disenchanted 
with himself, or that none of the jazz of the time was worth 
listening to. Most of the outstanding instrumentalists of the 
19305 were still playing, their powers undimmed. Young and 
Hawkins produced some of their most integrated work after 
1940. Charlie Christian never even saw the inside of a 
recording studio till 1941. It would be cataloguing to extend 
the list any further. 

But the music was tired to the extent that most of it was 
wholly predictable, always an unhealthy situation in any form 
of art. Jazz was predictable because the vocabulary of its 
soloists was more or less the same as it had been for the past 
ten years. The only extensions had been made by Lester 
Young, but even these had been founded on a venerable 
harmonic base. Indeed, it was the very fact that Lester was 
able to create fresh patterns out of stale raw material which 
made him so tremendous a figure in the jazz world of the 



There were two main reasons for an event like the arrival 
of Charlie Parker, apart of course from the truism that it is 
always in the nature of the young artist to extend his bound- 
aries to the limits of his ability. First, jazz had been stuck 
long enough in the same diatonic groove for its men to have 
become hampered by restrictions of harmonic thought. A 
bright fellow could digest all the laws of the time in a few 
weeks, although it might take him the rest of his life to make 
practical instrumental use of his knowledge. Gj still resolved 
on to C Major or C Minor, no matter whether you were 
Coleman Hawkins or the second tenor saxophone at the local 
palais. The path was so well-beaten that it had slowly 
degenerated into a rut. The other reason was just as under- 
standable. The young rising musician looked around him and 
was daunted by the stature of the giants of the Swing Age. He 
was shrewd enough to know there was no sense in attempting 
an improvement on the styles of Hodges, Carter, Eldridge, 
Hawkins, for the good reason that these men had invented 
their own styles. The choice before the apprentice of 1940 
was either to become a minor imitator or a revolutionary. 

The difficulty is that the revolutionary, if he has no alterna- 
tive of his own to the statm quo he is challenging, becomes 
a mere roughneck. Vital though it was for jazz to find a new 
approach if it were not to curl up and die from sheer lack of 
inspiration, at the time, nobody had the faintest glimmering of 
an idea what the new approach was likely to be, whether it 
would be instrumental, as Artie Shaw evidently hoped when 
he toyed with strings and harpsichords, overlooking the fact 
that a platitude on the piano remains a platitude when it is 
played on a harpsichord or a spinet or a celeste; or whether 
the new direction might take the form of a more intense 
stylization of older conventions, as the Benny Goodman 
Sextet attempted. 

The breakthrough had to come from a young man not yet 



set in his musical ways- And whoever this young man was to 
be, he would have to have an ear instinctively attuned to 
harmonic movement of the most complex kind. He would 
also have to possess a melodic gift and a sense of form at least 
as great as any other jazz musician who ever lived, and 
perhaps greater, for reasons which we will see. 

The most daunting condition for this new approach to 
improvisation was that tradition had apparently to be 
ignored; I say apparently because in actual fact Charlie 
Parker's jazz went closer to the roots of the matter than any 
musician since Louis Armstrong, but for many years the 
strangeness of the world he created obscured this fact. All 
kinds of conventions would have to be ignored, not only 
those of discord and resolution. The old idea of a musicianly 
tone might have to be ditched, and so might the old idea 
about the finished performance being immaculate and un- 
blemished, as Hodges and Carter were. The element of 
gambling would re-enter the process of making jazz, because 
the artist would once more be casting himself on an unknown 

The peculiar properties of the human ear now enter the 
argument to cause hopeless confusion. It is one of the 
physiological features of our species that the most outrageous 
cacophony might well come to sound perfectly innocuous if 
only we give it time. Amazing but true, that what sounds 
like an outrageous gaffe to one generation will be accepted 
with a yawn by the next. At the time Charlie Parker made his 
recording de"but, all but a few musicians and one *or two 
shrewd afficwnados dismissed him as a buffoon, because to 
them the progressions he was using seemed grammatically 
incorrect. And so they were if you judged them according to 
the method of Johnny Hodges. 

The surprising thing is that only a knife-edge separated 
the one from the other, a fact most conveniently demon- 



strated by one of the earliest Parker recordings. On the first, 
subsequently rejected take of 'Red Cross*, Parker, coping 
with the harmonies of 'I Got Rhythm', makes an almost staid 
start, perhaps because he was on the horns of the same 
dilemma as the guitarist Tiny Grimes had been when he 
composed the piece. The first four bars of 'Red Cross' con- 
sist of a two-bar repeated phrase suffering from all the ennui 
of the period. It might have been lifted straight out of one of 
Benny Goodman's prim little pieces for the sextet. There is 
not the slightest sign that this is the dawn of a new era in 
jazz. But then, without any preparation, occurs in the fifth 
and sixth bars a new-minted phrase which has nothing to do 
with the phrase that went before. The two fragments belong 
to different stages of jazz development, and the impact on 
first hearing is most disturbing. The strange beauty of the 
new shape is then accented even further by the fact that the 
two-bar cadence following is as conventional as the opening 
four bars. It is a bebop sandwich, with the Swing Age playing 
the part of the bread. 

When Parker enters after the theme statement on the first 
take, his phrase pays such deference to the jazz tradition that 
it might literally be Johnny Hodges playing something like 
'Squatty Roo'. The phrase consists of four notes based 
harmonically on the tonic major chord. No revolution here, 
although after this opening the solo careers off on its own 
strange path. This take was rejected and another immediately 
cut, and it is now that an apparently minute alteration occurs 
in the shaping of the first alto phrase, an alteration symbolic 
of much of the fuss which arose about Parker and what he 
was about to do to jazz over the next few years. 

The first three notes of the four-note entry phrase are 
identical, almost as though the soloist had made a mental 
note to play them no matter how many takes there might be. 
But the last quaver of the phrase flies off in a completely 



unexpected direction. The listener hearing it for the first 
time is caught flat-footed and can only tell himself that the 
man is mad, that he is playing wrong notes in the most 
shameless manner, that jazz is nothing like as trustworthy as 
it used to be in the good old days. At the time 'Red Cross' 
was made, in September 1944, people could get really nasty 
with each other over the legitimacy of that fourth note. They 
might develop an enmity expressing itself in physical assault, 
or if they were musicians, ripen into a vendetta whose 
bitterness would remain undiluted for ten or fifteen years. 

For all that, there was nothing blasphemous or technically 
incorrect about that note, or many others like it that Parker 
scattered all over his recordings. It was perfectly permissible. 
The only point was that from now on the world of sound 
embodied by the term 'jazz' became irrevocably divided into 
two factions, those who could accept that note and those who 
could not. The question was perhaps a little more compli- 
cated than that for many people. There were those willing, 
not only to accept that note, but to accept that note and 
nothing else, and even to construct around it a philosophy 
of social insurrection. They were the crackpots and the pro- 
fessional hipsters who seemed to think that now Charlie 
Parker had arrived, everything played before him was placed 
out of court. Every extraneous factor about him, from his 
dress to his private habits, became an essential part of the 
wooing of the new muse. 

Acceptance or rejection of that note, and the nature and 
degree of the acceptance and rejection of that note, was a kind 
of litmus test for the sensitivity of the ear of the judge. What- 
ever anyone may have felt personally about Charlie Parker 
in those days, it was certainly true that very many people who 
had regarded themselves, quite sincerely, as jazzlovers, now 
found themselves jazzhaters. Some of them were too be- 
wildered about the upheaval to do very much about it, so 



they retired in a state of bitterness and complete bewilder- 
ment* Some of them, the more spirited ones, tried to concoct 
the most comical sophistries to retain their position. M. 
Pannassie made an inspired attempt at defending the castle by 
claiming that anything he didn't like wasn't jazz at all. Of 
course he did not say this in so many words, but what he did 
say was that Charlie Parker r s music, or Bebop as it was known 
in those quaintly onomatopoeic days, was not jazz at all, but 
some ghastly hybrid which M. Pannassie was very careful 
not to define. 

In other words, a few uses of that note from 'Red Cross' 
and Charlie Parker had lopped away a huge percentage of 
jazz followers from the body of the music itself. All the 
romantics of the 'Red light district of Storyville and Louis in 
the Reformatory' school were out. All the followers of the 
New Orleans legend abandoned their position with indecent 
haste and became self-confessed nostalgia-mongers with no 
real interest in the present or the future of jazz. All the 
adulators of the Big Band ethos, with its attendant im- 
becilities of screaming solos and half-witted novelty, dis- 
appeared from view. The trouble was that none of those who 
objected to that note were really sure of themselves. Not 
knowing what the note was, or what its syntactical justification 
might be, or whether it was a joke in poor taste, the anti- 
Parkerites, or if you like the ante-Parkerites, either gnashed 
their teeth in ineffectual rage, thus becoming a constant 
source of amusement to younger musicians, or took the bit 
between their teeth and entered the lists with the most 
astonishing theories. 

The delicious thing is that the diehards included many 
musicians who had themselves once been adventurers. Benny 
Goodman, who evidently believed that now he had stopped 
evolving himself, everyone else ought to stop evolving too, 
mumbled something about 'wrong notes*. Louis Armstrong 



felt so strongly about it that he actually was moved to make a 
definite statement about music. The beboppers, he remarked, 
were killing the business. Of course such asperities became 
diluted with the passing years. Goodman even went so far as 
to hire Wardell Gray, and Louis Armstrong, perhaps re- 
assured by the fact that business, despite the beboppers, had 
never been better, was rumoured to be on friendly terms with 
Dizzy Gillespie of all people. But it is the immediate impact 
of the new jazz and the lunacies of bigotry and partisanship 
it caused that is symptomatic of the heresy of Charlie 
Parker's music. 

After reflecting on the magnitude of the dialectical war 
which raged over the birth of modern jazz, it is ironic to note 
how innocuous those outrageous notes really were. To slide 
for a moment into the degeneracy of technicalities once more, 
the Hodges-like phrase in the first take of 'Red Cross* ended 
on C, the root of the tonic major chord, whereas in the second 
take the phrase ended on a movement from F sharp to F 
natural, and the F sharp was none other than that dreaded 
scourge of the reactionaries, the terror of the sentimentalists, 
the bane of the professional fans, the pretenders and the 
usurpers, the Flattened Fifth. 

Now the flattened fifth of the common chord is not right 
and it is not wrong, in the same way that when a man accepts 
as silence what a dog will bark at as a piercing scream, neither 
the man nor the dog is right or wrong. It is simply a question 
of the relative sensitivity of their ears. To a man whose 
musical experience is limited to listening to jazz, and jazz of 
the past at that, the flattened fifth will indeed sound like a 
mocking insult. On the other hand, the musician who has 
heard even a few bars of the Impressionist composers, the 
same ones who captivated the young Bix Beiderbecke, cannot 
honestly see what all the fuss is about. With Charlie Parker 
jaz was simply trying to catch up with the movement of 



formal music into the realms of chromaticism which had 
swept across the entire world of music during the nineteenth 
century. It is no coincidence that the composers whom 
adventurous jazzmen always prefer are Debussy, Ravel, 
Stravinsky and Bartok, and that they, who too have their 
bigoted moments, cannot often tolerate more than a few bars 
of a composer like Handel, who probably represents to them 
the classical counterpart of a mouldy fig. 

What the modern movement was doing was to broaden the 
harmonic territory available to the improvising musician, 
which brings us to the Olympian achievement of Charlie 
Parker. The more complex the harmony, the more difficult 
becomes the soloist's task of retaining the relaxed spirit of a 
good jazz performance. Once a tune begins, the harmonic 
changes rush by like telegraph poles on a railway line, and the 
more poles there are the harder It becomes to pay full 
attention to them all, until in the end so preoccupied with 
them will the traveller become that he is in real danger of 
failing to observe the unity of the surrounding landscape. 
Parker was so richly endowed a musician that he was not only 
able to introduce into the jazz context shades of harmonic 
subtlety never before heard in jazz, but he was able at the 
same time to restore to jazz an emotional sincerity it had 
forgotten about in the preceding era of sophisticated tech- 
niques, ambitious orchestrations, and compromise with the 
tastes of the dance hall. 

The two effects are apparently contradictory. How can a 
man complicate an art form technically and at the same time 
simplify it emotionally? He can only achieve this if his 
emotional depth is so profound that not only can it cleanse 
the existing form with its attendant rules and conventions, 
but can accept further complexities and still manage to retain 
the effect of simplicity. That is why Charlie Parker might be 
said to have possessed a melodic gift greater than any other 



jazz musician before him. The mere fact of his success proves 
the point. Had he not possessed a prodigious instinct for the 
moulding of a clean and beautiful phrase, his work would 
have been doomed to the same arid precosity of many of his 
contemporaries and followers, who were too often guilty of a 
kind of instrumental chicane, by which the passion of 
inspiration is usurped by an impressive but fundamentally 
pointless manual dexterity. 

At first Parker was not able to produce the thoroughly 
integrated performance in the new idiom, because jazz 
happens to be a communal effort. No matter how great he 
may have been, Parker was not able to conjure up rhythm 
sections to complement his own playing. In recordings like 
'Red Cross' can be found the intriguing and slightly comic 
spectacle of the new jazz presented against the old familiar 
background of four chunks to a bar. Only in time did a com- 
prehensive world of modernism come into being. 

What must have surprised the old guard of the jazz world, 
players and spectators alike, was Parker's repeated insistence 
on the twelve bar blues, a form which although it had not 
gone into complete decline, had not been too happily used by 
the outstanding musicians of the Swing Age. The reason is 
not hard to find. Players like Hawkins and Carter required for 
the fulfilment of their styles, sophisticated and ornate, 
material whose harmonies were far more complex than the 
blues, with its three indispensable harmonic changes. As it 
never occurred to these players to take the blues form and 
amend it, the only alternative was to borrow themes like 
'Body and Soul' or 'Out of Nowhere' from the popular song 
idiom, because these tunes had ever-moving harmonies 
designed by trained musicians in original patterns. 

But Parker had superior endowment to his predecessors, 
talented as they were. He was more conversant than they with 
unusual harmonic shapes, and in addition, had a creative 



spark which was not quite the same as that which enables the 
soloist to play a succession of good jazz choruses. Parker's ear 
instinctively heard harmonies implied in a melody which 
most musicians never thought about. He was therefore 
tempted to insert into his harmonic sequences chords that 
were not wrong, but different from those originally written 
into the song. These new harmonies, or 'substitutions', as 
some musicians refer to them, are the key to his whole 
aesthetic. If the jazz soloist is an artist who creates his effect 
by weaving designs in the harmonies of a theme, then it is 
quite obvious that when those harmonies are strangely fresh, 
then the patterns comprising his solos will themselves be 
strangely fresh, although only if the instrumentalist involved 
is a gifted jazz musician will the patterns be more than just 
unusual. There were dozens of early modernists who pro- 
duced strange patterns, but Parker's strangeness was pro- 
found and beautiful. In using the blues form, he was making it 
most embarrassing for the diehards whose ears were unable to 
guide them through the labyrinth of Parker's musical thought 

Some of the most superlative Parker recordings are those 
of the blues, and now that the captains and the kings have 
departed, nobody, not even the most crackpotted bigot, denies 
theirvirtues, for he knows that time has reversed the situation, 
that it is now he, not the recordings, that are on trial. Even 
so, allowing for all the belated wisdom of hindsight, it is hard 
to accept the fact that bloody critical battles raged about such 
recordings as 'Now's the Time', which in retrospect is seen 
to be one of the classic blues recordings in the entire jazz 

Parker plays three choruses on the issued master of 'Now's 
the Time', and although there are some dazzling innovations, 
it is very simple to chart the parallel between this interpreta- 
tion of the blues and any of a thousand from earlier stages in 
jazz development, Parker's entrance, for instance. There is 



nothing at all revolutionary about this beautifully conceived, 
perfectly executed and meticulously defined phrase. It was 
original certainly, but there was nothing revolutionary about 
it. It happens to have been played by a revolutionary, but that 
is not the same thing. Its strangeness was due, not to its 
harmonic inspiration, of which there is virtually none, but to 
the breathtaking freshness of the player's style, as though he 
had heard about the common chord of the major triad for the 
first time a few minutes before the recording began. These 
simple, passionate phrases were to remain one of the staples 
of Parker's style, an antidote he employed instinctively to 
balance the complexity of some of his bewildering flights into 
double tempo. 

After the first four bars, moving into the minor tonality, 
the phrase is once again quite simple, although not so stark 
as the opening. In this second section of the first chorus, there 
occur at least two intimations of a very important truth about 
jazz, which is that each new style demands its own tech- 
nique, because each new style is only new at all because it 
moves through the harmonies over a path not previously 
exploited. Parker's phrase is built around the device of a fall 
from the keynote to the minor third, but not as Hodges 
might have executed it. There is no suggestion of a gliss- 
ando. Instead, the intervening notes are lightly touched, no 
more than suggested, in the descent. The device is executed 
so casually that it might go unnoticed. However, for the 
saxophonist with aspirations to master the new idiom, here 
was a new problem to be solved. When Parker repeats the 
phrase another characteristic of what was then called Bebop 
rears its head. After the second descend the phrase climbs 
upwards again, but instead of a continuous sweep, there is a 
quaver followed by a triplet, executed as fast as light, but 
with every detail perfectly defined. Because it was one of the 
few tangibles of Parker's personal keyboard style, this triplet 



device came to be one of the most maddening cliches of 
modern jazz for several years, reducing more than one 
individual style to the dimensions of a prolonged and ugly 
hiccup. To Parker it was only one of many personal quirks of 
style never allowed to shatter the whole. The third and last 
four-bar section of his first chorus is conventional, except for 
the fact that infinitesimal adjustments of the time values of 
the notes hints at an independence of the four-in-a-bar cage 
which had hitherto been sedulously avoided in jazz. 

The second chorus opens with a modest elaboration of the 
start of the previous chorus, except that at the end of the 
second bar the appearance, brief but significant, of the aug- 
mented second of the key implies one of the substituted 
chords which gave Parker's playing a new dimension of 
beauty. It is important to appreciate that this note was the 
augmented second and not the minor third. In their actual 
pitch the two notes are the same, but the enharmonic 
distinction must be made to underline the nature of the 
harmony in whose terms Parker was thinking. The first real 
shock to the Establishment comes in the second section, 
where the melody makes a sudden astonishing leap upwards 
to create an interval so perplexing to the jazz ear of the time 
that some people assumed that the high note in the phrase 
was a slip of the fingers not intended by the soloist at all. 

Having flown off at a tangent in this way, Parker then 
proceeds to another convention of the new jazz, the deploy- 
ment of an extended passage in double time. It should be 
made clear that playing sixteen notes in a bar was nothing 
new. What made these phrases sound like a lunatic scramble 
to the ear too sluggish to follow them was not the mere 
presence of the sixteen notes in one bar, but the arrangement 
of the inflexions and time values to suggest that for a moment 
or two the tempo of the performance had actually doubled. 
The effect of this on the listener of the time was catastrophic, 


for he now had not only to digest new modes of expression, 
but to digest them at exactly twice the speed for which his 
mind had been prepared at the start of the performance.No 
wonder so many people gave up in disgust, overlooking the 
fact that the melodic content of a phrase like the one which 
ended the second of Parker's choruses in 'Now's the Time' 
was ravishing. 

The third chorus begins with yet another variation of the 
phrase that opened the alto solo, only now there are to be 
found sprinkled about the phrases certain grace notes embel- 
lishing the melodic line and seem to complicate it without 
actually doing so. These grace notes were another Parker 
mannerism that broke out in an unsightly rash of affectation 
right across the face of modern jazz, but here again Parker 
himself kept this kind of virtuosity strictly in check, sub- 
ordinating its effect to the overall welfare of the solo. 

As he approaches the third and final cadence of this last 
chorus, the soloist breaks out again in a passionate outburst of 
double-tempo phrasing. It is when he arrives at one of the 
key junctures of the blues sequence, the eighth bar, that he 
coins an epigram as beautifully rounded as any that jazz had 
heard. The eighth bar of the blues is vital because it is one of 
the moments of resolution at which the soloist arrives on his 
way round the harmonic cycle, back to the starting tonality, 
the point where the mood recedes to the quietism of the 
opening. The harmonic change he uses at the end of the 
eighth bar is the one that will lead him back to the dominant 
chord linked to the tonic on which he must end. In modern 
jazz the ear of many of its pioneers, instead of settling for a 
normal diatonic change, substituted a tiny progression of 
descending minor seventh chords. It must not be thought 
that players like Charlie Parker suddenly discovered a new 
musical effect. The chord of the minor seventh is as old as 
music itself. Ravel's 'Allegro for Harp', written before Parker 


was born, opens with an elaborate exposition of the use of the 
progression, but the descending minor seventh was not the 
kind of discord on which the mind of a musician might settle 
unless he were quite free of the conventions of diatonic 

In effect, Parker, in using these descending minor sevenths, 
was in the enviable position of having at his disposal a musical 
device virtually unknown to the idiom in which he was work- 
ing. Suggestions of the movement may be found in jazz of an 
earlier period. There is one moment on 'Billie's Blues*, 
recorded in 1937, when Bunny Berigan of all people, seems 
about to stumble on the sequence. But with Parker it is clear 
that the effect is designed, intended, thoroughly digested and 
integrated into the framework of the most traditional of all 
jazz forms. The phrase Parker coins is romantically over- 
whelming. Its technical originality is secondary. It is the 
emerging melodic shape that is vital, and it is at such moments 
that Parker demonstrates this astonishing gift for bequeathing 
to future generations of jazz musicians a new harmonic scope 
at the same time as he cuts away all the fripperies and false 
sophistications, leaving a residue which, for all its technical 
ingenuity, is emotionally simple and frank. It is in its com- 
plete candour that Parker's style is something new in jazz 
music. With phrases like his entrance in 'Now's the Time', 
and the minor seventh device later in the same recording, he 
bridges the vast gulf between audience and performer 
through the alchemy of an almost desperate sincerity. 

In the sense that he was a sublimely gifted jazz musician, 
Parker was something of a freak. Never at any time could the 
listener, no matter how well acquainted with Parker's playing 
he might be, feel confident that Parker would not play some- 
thing unexpected. Of course he had his private cliches. All 
musicians do. They are the means by which we identify 
them. There were times when Parker might jog along, putting 



a solo together with no more than a high degree of pro- 
fessionalism without venturing beyond the familiar limits of 
his own more casual performances. But he was always able 
suddenly to rise above himself to produce yet another solo 
unique in form and scope. One of the most enlightening 
demonstrations of Parker's creative muse at work has been 
preserved in the London Memorial album which includes 
several different masters of the blues theme, 'Billie's Bounce'. 

The first four takes are frankly routine Parker, comprising 
phrases a little too familiar because of the enlightening effect 
Parker has had upon the jazz world in the years since he made 
these early blues records. Not till the fifth take did he arrive 
at the synthesis he was seeking. In this final acceptable 
version of 'Billie's Bounce' the actual structure of the 
phrases is not so very different from that of the first four, 
although in the opening phrase of the fourth chorus he sud- 
denly takes us off through a strangely beautiful little byway 
on the way to the dominant chord of the key which nobody 
had thought of before. It is in the moulding of the phrases 
and their relevance to each other that the ultimate solo has a 
perfection the first four lack. The phrases now blend into a 
single entity, transforming four choruses of the blues into one 
extended statement. The solo is no longer explicable in 
technical terms because its virtues are now more than tech- 

Once again the first chorus opens with conventional use of 
the blues harmonies. At the end of the second four-bar 
section the last two notes, technically elementary, merely the 
major seventh and major sixth of the key, achieve a truly 
extraordinary pathos, suggesting the overtones of a verbal 
statement of warmth and candour now well-known to those 
familiar with Parker's playing. The second chorus opens with 
a sudden terrifying independence of the bar lines. For a bar 
or two the whole of jazz seems to be reeling crazily away 



from the discipline of tempo. Chaos is imminent until in the 
second two bars of the first four-bar block, Parker restores 
the conventional pulse of a jazz performance with a metrical 
little phrase that jumps back on the tramlines. It is a fleeting 
moment bursting with implications. There is no way in which 
it can be notated because the microscopic adjustments of the 
time values cannot be expressed in terms of crotchets and 
quavers. For those few brief beats the rhythmic formalism 
of jazz is left to fend for itself while the soloist appears to 
wander off on some rhythmic plane of his own. Were it not 
for the irresistible authority of the phrase in the third and 
fourth bars, pulling the solo back to its metrical obligations as 
a performance in the jazz frame, one might be tempted to 
believe that Parker's mind had wandered for a moment and 
was concentrating on some private musical experience of his 
own of which nobody else was aware. The chorus ends with 
one of those fervent double-tempo outbursts, which, so far 
from being expositions of technical expertise, are vital to the 
solo because only through their agency does the soloist feel 
able to express all the pent-up jazz inside him bursting to be 

The third chorus begins with another return to the sim- 
plicity of a first-year primer. The phrase Is no more than the 
unadorned arpeggio of the tonic chord, but it does not sound 
simpletonian because of its place in a pattern of considerable 
complexity. The phrase persists longer than the listener is led 
to expect. Instead of the open space in the second half of the 
phrase apparently implied by the contours of the first half, 
the notes come tumbling out until the whole of the first four 
bars are filled out by one long phrase of rare extended 
ingenuity. The solo then closes on a more or less traditional 

In both 'Now's the Time' and 'Billies Blues', two of the 
most mature blues performances ever recorded, our retro- 



spective wisdom tells us of the surprisingly high content of 
purely conventional harmonic vocabulary in Parker's playing. 
The revolution seen through the window of 'Billie's Bounce* 
appears to have been a far milder affair than the warring 
factions of the 19403 believed it to be. Above all else is 
revealed the reckless confusion and bigotry of those intoler- 
able fatheads who screamed that Charlie Parker was not 
playing jazz. 'Now'sthe Time' and 'Billie's Bounce' are jazz 
in its purest, most concentrated form. M. Pannassie, an un- 
repentant clutcher at straws ever since modernism first 
appeared, has shown a tedious persistence in making capital 
out of a quotation of Parker's stating that 'bebop was no love- 
child of jazz', as though the casual remark of an artist in the 
midst of his labours is necessarily of relevance to the nature 
of his art. 

The comical thing is that M. Pannassie has insisted on an 
interpretation of the statement that suits his own ends, which 
are frankly so incomprehensible that one loses sight of them. 
It seems far more probable to me that what Parker meant if 
and when he said that bebop was no love-child of jazz, was 
that there are no grounds on which anybody could challenge 
the legitimacy of the succession from 'Wild Man Blues' to 
'Sippin' at Bells*. 

For all that legitimacy, modern jazz in its early days found 
itself in desperate straits. Not only did the bulk of the jazz 
audience find its offerings indigestible, but many of the 
musicians of the preceding era rejected it just as uncom- 
promisingly, although no doubt in some cases for very differ- 
ent reasons. The practising jazz musician with a set style will 
always have a vested interest in the status quo. Many of the 
anti-Parker musicians must have felt the ground slipping 
under their feet when first they heard the strains of 'Thriving 
from a Riff'. One of the most pathetic spectacles in all jazz 
history is that of the modernists twisting and turning to find 


some way out of the impasse of their own forbidding com- 
plexity without sacrificing anything in artistic content. The 
means they employed varied from slapstick and buffoonery, 
symbolized in Dizzy Gillespie's comic hats, to the courting of 
those trappings of musical legitimacy jazz has always coveted. 

It has occurred to many people that there might have been 
something regrettable in the wedding of an uninhibited 
musician like Charlie Parker to the cosseted sound of a string 
section. To some the 'Parker with Strings' sessions were as 
unforgivable as Bix's spell with Paul Whiteman. To others, 
it was a momentary aberration on Parker's part that left his 
gift unblemished. It has occurred to very few commentators 
that Parker himself may have been delighted by the experi- 
ment of soaring high over a landscape of stringed instru- 

Instrumental virtuosity reached a new climax with Charlie 
Parker. All previous kws were invalid. Collective improvisa- 
tion in the light of a Parker performance like 'Embraceable 
You' was now clearly seen to be a compensatory device to 
cloak the limitations of the musicians who resorted to it. With 
a musician of Parker's genius, the solo voice was the only 
conceivable approach, because it was the only way he would 
be able to suggest to the listener more than a tithe of his 
potential. The string background was still no more than a 
background and had no bearing on the actual content of the 
saxophone solos. Had Parker been distressed or thrown out 
of his stride by the experiment then the decriers would have 
been justified. In fact, both on his own testimony and that of 
the records, Parker thoroughly enjoyed the whole affair. 

The 'Parker with Strings' tracks are another demonstra- 
tion of the soloist's refusal to be disconcerted and therefore 
inhibited by the intensity of his own passion. Performances 
like 'Just Friends' and 'If I Should Lose You* are towering 
examples of musical romanticism. They are unashamedly 



sentimental without ever degenerating into mere senti- 
mentality, and they also exhibit one facet of Parker's sub- 
limity which was accepted for many years, and is indeed often 
challenged today. He had one of the most inexpressively 
beautiful instrumental tones any jazzman ever produced. 
Because it was not the dandiacal, elegant tone of Benny 
Carter or the voluptuous cry of Johnny Hodges, it was dis- 
missed as a fraud by critics who had never blown any 
instruments in their lives, apart possibly from their own 
trumpets. Bandleaders hated it, and still do in Britain, 
because it wrought havoc with the vibrato blend of the con- 
ventional saxophone section. And purists complained that 
more than one Parker recording was issued although blem- 
ished by the indiscretion of a squeak. 

It was true that Parker sounded like neither Hodges nor 
Carter. It was also true that he sounded more inspired than 
either of them. The laws of saxophone section playing may be 
discounted, for they were formulated for the edification of 
dance hall patrons and have no musical significance. As for the 
squeaks, they were the occasional price Parker had to pay for 
the power he produced from an alto saxophone. Now and 
again he put into his embouchure more muscular pressure 
than any reed or mouthpiece could cope with, hence the 
squeak. Sometimes the squeaks caused a recording to be 
rejected, but in certain cases the solo was so outstanding that 
the master was released, squeak and all, just as a publishing 
firm might elect to release on to the market a great literary 
masterpiece with a small print smudge on every hundredth 

What is more to the point is that when a saxophonist 
squeaks it is no reflection on his musicianship. It may imply 
a condemnation of his reed, his mouthpiece or his selection of 
these two appurtenances, but it has literally nothing to do 
with his technical ability. There are thousands of saxophon- 



ists who never squeaked in their lives, but this does not place 
them above Charlie Parker in the hierarchy of jazz. The 
modern revolution was a hectic affair. Its pioneers had no 
time for the niceties of public performance. 

Parker was an experimenter, an explorer, forever poised on 
the brink of chaos, just as some of those he displaced as 
the pre-eminent jazz voice had been poised for ten years or 
more on the brink of latitude. He was attempting to hammer 
out a whole set of conventions new to jazz, and consider- 
ing the complete originality of his playing, it is truly miracu- 
lous that he achieved as many perfect performances as he did. 

With Parker, jazz was rising phoenixlike from the debris of 
its own ashes. It was being given another chance. Parker was 
bestowing upon it a mine of musical thought so rich in 
potential that his successors have been quarrying the mine 
ever since. Unlike Parker, most of these successors are not 
unlimited jazz soloists, finding it an indispensable aid to 
inspiration to lean on the teachings of Parker. They are also 
on occasions hamstrung by musical climates that Parker was 
able to take in his stride. Big band, small band, strings or 
trumpet-alto front line, vocal groups, scat singers, nothing 
impeded the flow of his expression. 

Some of the big band sides he made in the middle 19505 
are thrilling matches between the orchestra on one hand and 
Parker on the other. The orchestrations are ordinary enough, 
and time has been particularly harsh on them, but Parker 
redeems all. Time and again he soars over the concerted voice 
of the accompaniment, painting dazzling resplendent pic- 
tures which take the breath away. The infinite grace of his 
variations on 'Stella by Starlight', the whimsical chromatic 
tricks he plays with the first phrase of 'What is This Thing 
Called Love?', that hair-raising moment when he soars over 
the written melody by a mere semitone in 'Almost Like 
Being In Love* so that the ear is almost too terrified to follow, 



all these manifestations of the soloist's genius make other- 
wise indifferent recordings historic. 

When a man towers over the whole realm of his artistic 
exploits, it is certain that for some time after he has gone, 
critical standards will be all awry, like a trusty compass 
sudden fallen inside the field of a mightly magnet. Parker's 
recognition, like Lester's, was belated, with the difference 
that while Lester lived to see the vindication of his methods, 
Parker did not. The pathos of the situation is increased by the 
fact that Parker missed out only by a year or two. Had he 
lived into the 19605 he would have been lionized as Gillespie 
was lionized, he would have become at forty the Grand Old 
Man of a glorious artistic triumphal upheaval. He would even 
have made large sums of money, something always pleasing 
to jazz musicians, no matter what any of them may say to the 
contrary. But he did not live. He actively strove to die, for 
personal reasons which nobody can adequately explain. It is 
too glib to say he became a drug addict for the same reason 
Alice ate the cake marked 'Eat Me', to gain entry into the 
enchanted garden. And no less glib to say he behaved as he 
did because of his confrontation by the long line of blank 
uncomprehending faces which for years showed no reaction 
to the music he was conjuring up out of his own head. What 
terrifying private visions might have dogged him, what 
oppression might have fell upon him through his inescapable 
artistic loneliness, what disgust he might have succumbed to 
when the imbecile denigrations poured in, we do not know. 
His life was a turbulent enigma and the only coherence to 
emerge from it was the music. 

During a career short even by jazz standards, he wrecked 
the canons of criticismand severed the music for ever from the 
dilettante followers to whom an affectation of jazz enthusiasm 
was a social asset or a personal vanity. After Parker you had 
to be something of a musician to follow the best jazz of the 



day. If you were sentimental about the good old days, if you 
clutched at fading recollections of your own adolescence, if 
you thought your opinions were valid just because you 
possessed the recordings, Parker exposed you for a charlatan. 
There was nothing left for you to do but feign wisdom of his 
art, like the professional hipsters and the beat writers, or run 
screaming from the arena, like the revivalists and those who 
collected matrix numbers as a schoolboy collects train 
numbers, without wit or selectivity. 

Even if you were conversant with the grammar and syntax 
of the language Parker was using, it was improbable that you 
would be able to grasp the full import of what he was pioneer- 
ing. It is a sad reflection of jazz development since Parker 
that what we call modernism is already twenty years old, that 
what Charlie Parker played in the early I94JOS still has about 
it a contemporary ring carrying a damning implied criticism 
of those who have followed him. Any of a hundred Parker 
recordings prove the point, for all of them contain the raw 
material for a thousand solos recorded by others in kter years. 
The phrases still sound fresh today, yet they were routine 
to Parker years ago, thrown off by him in the course of his 
life as a working musician as casually as another musician 
might race through a few warming-up exercises. 

The extent to which he was passed over by professed 
experts is truly extraordinary. What of the earless ones who 
said he was playing wrong notes? What of those brilliant 
analysts who announced the whole thing was a practical joke? 
What of those who denied his music the descriptive adjective 
'jazz'? There was one priceless philistine who took his tape 
recorder to the Mintons sessions and switched off whenever 
Parker started to play, because his jazz was not as decorous 
as that of Herbie Fields, a musician whom the owner of the 
machine worshipped to such an insane degree that he com- 
piled tape after tape. 



When Parker went to Sweden in 1950 the conditions were 
the worst possible from the point of view of the preservation 
of the incident. There was only a tape recorder of inadequate 
technical potential, and a rhythm section not fit to wipe 
Parker's boots. He shared the front line with a trumpeter who 
was no more than a competent professional, certainly a soloist 
lacking in the inventive flair of any of the important soloists of 
the modern era. As always, Parker was sublimely indifferent 
to these limitations, in rather the same way that Bix was to the 
solecisms of the lesser Chicagoans. Parker's visit to Sweden 
took place in 1950, yet the content of his solos on that 
occasion were providing raw material for outstanding saxo- 
phonists ten years later. Because of the crude recording con- 
ditions, much of the passionate warmth of his tone is lost, 
but the unflagging imagination makes the evening an im- 
portant one. The incongruity of the background, an incon- 
gruity musical as well as regional, simply did not affect his 
music at all. 

Some years after his death it was still possible to pass 
muster as a modernist in the London jazz clubs by repeating, 
a semitone higher, a phrase just played on the tonic chord. In 
the Swedish album, Parker resorts to this device in the 
opening bars of the second eight of his third improvised 
chorus of 'Anthropology', pursuing what must have been for 
the times a highly subjective harmonic logic of his own, one 
it needed considerable artistic courage to follow. It is difficult 
to say whether the Swedish rhythm section hung on to his 
coat-tails at moments like this, because the recording balance 
is so poor that it may well be concealing a multitude of 
musical sins. 

In Cheers', one of the earliest standard themes of the 
modern revolution, at the end of the first eight of his second 
chorus, Parker races down the chord of the diminished 
seventh, placing grace notes before each note of the chord, a 



facet of his virtuosity which Stan Getz later indulged in on 
every possible occasion, no doubt finding the device peculiarly 
suited to the rococo embellishments of his own highly florid 
style. To point the mastery of Parker over his material and the 
circumstances under which he sometimes had to treat it, 
there is the presence on the other side of the record of the 
Swedish alto saxophonist Arne Domnerus, whose jazz in 
contrast to Parker's sounds circumspect, not quite sure of 
itself, and therefore premeditated, as though Domnerus 
believed that the freedom Parker had bequeathed to the jazz 
soloist was too vast an affair for the intuitive muse to cope 
with. This generosity of spirit of Parker's is the true hall- 
mark of his quality. The limitless chromatic freedom of his 
new jazz was like the armour of Achilles, there for anybody to 
try on for size whenever he felt like it, but too much for many 
to cope with. 

Earlier in the same year Parker had fulfilled another ball- 
room date which was taped and later issued as an authentic 
album. The 'Bird at St Nick's* issue is a better production in 
every way than the transcription of the evening in the 
Amiralen Ballroom in Malmo. The instrumental balance is 
better, and the other musicians have a sensitive appreciation 
of the kind of music Parker was trying to produce. For 
reasons of economy the tracks were trimmed up into excerpts 
that spotlight Parker at the expense of everyone else, but 
despite this, the 'St Nick's' album has about it an element of 
truth which many studio recordings do not. 

It was one of the first examples we ever had of the modern 
jazz musician out in the world selling his music to the 
customers of a dance hall. It is instantly clear what Parker was 
up against. The broken rhythms and cascades of notes which 
might seem, to the uneducated ear, to wreak havoc with tihe 
tempo, the splendour of the saxophonist's whole conception, 
none of these things are ever likely to commend themselves to 


patrons raised on and looking for the conventional dance hall 
pap. In fact, there is a schism here that no amount of striving 
on the artist's part can ever hope to resolve. This is the 
fundamental difference between Parker's music and the jazz 
of all the preceding generations. With Parker jazz had 
evolved to the stage where it was too complex to be accepted 
merely as a background for that Saturday night social round 
of the dancer. It was now ceasing to be a functional music in 
so far as the only way to arrive at any depth of understanding 
was not to dance to it, or eat with it in the distant background, 
or discuss abstruse philosophy to the promptings of its 
rhythms, but to listen to it, intently, respectfully, with all the 
sensitivity one can muster, because it was a maturing art form 
demanding full attention or none at all. 

In the *St Nick's* album are all the elements in the life of a 
jazz musician which create the exquisite irony of his situation. 
The dancers shuffle round on their treadmill, the extraneous 
noises of the patrons drift in over the music, the acoustics are 
distorted by the accidental echo-chamber effect of most in- 
door arenas. And Parker tries to cut across these factors, 
playing the most amazing music, jazz fresh-minted, somehow 
implying a relationship with the early jazz that the Pannassies 
of this world doggedly refused to see, and yet carrying with it 
the implications of the era in which it flowered, as un- 
mistakably as the Bix records re-echo the Roaring Twenties 
and Goodman's soporifics with the big band are character- 
istic of the college tastes of the New Deal. 

What does a musician do in this unfortunate situation? 
Does he fret at the thought of his art being misused? Does he 
attempt to make converts? At first he might possibly attempt 
to do both these things, but as he slowly becomes worldly- 
wise, he does the only thing left to him. He ignores all the 
extraneous factors as completely as possible. He shuts his 
mind off from the imbecilities of his audiences. He throws his 



music at the heads of whoever happen to be within earshot. 
As far as he is concerned, the audience happens to be there by 
accident. It is he, and not they, who is the focal point of the 
event. The fact that their admission fee is paying his wage for 
the night would only have some bearing on the artist-and- 
audience relationship if with their admission fee they contri- 
buted a guarantee of sensitivity, of willingness to understand, 
of awareness. But most audiences do not, especially in dance 
halls, and it is perfectly clear that in the 'Bird at St Nick's' 
album Parker and the rest of them are just going through the 
motions of earning a living. Somebody has booked them for 
a gig. They have accepted it gracefully. The creation of a 
work of art is so alien to their thoughts and attitudes that the 
suggestion of it would only inspire them to ribaldry. But they 
have created art, for all their avowed indifference to such a 
grandiose conception. Parker at St Nick's is earning a living 
for a single night of his life, but in doing so he is also minting 
a few gems which may fly over the heads of the shuffling 
dancers but remain on the record for connoisseurs to prise 
out of the content if they feel so inclined. 

This forsaking of his audience by the modern musician is 
the most vital and tragic fact in all the evolution of jazz. It 
was inevitable, because the moment musicians began to 
explore the possibilities of the world of harmony, instead of 
accepting without question the narrow conventions of the 
early days, sounds were imminent which required for their 
appreciation a comparatively trained ear, the very thing that 
audiences have never been able to give the jazz musician. 
There is no solution. Parker was right to dream of subtleties 
like 'Confirmation* instead of attempting to cut his way 
through the jungle of ignorance and prejudice to a popular 
acclaim. When an artist is able to conjure up work of the 
sublime beauty of the best Parker, it is the duty, not of the 
artist to reach down to the outside world, but of the outside 


world to aspire to the heights of the artist, wherein is con- 
tained all the elements of Charlie Parker's tragedy. 

For it was indeed a tragedy in the classic sense. The end 
was ordained before the beginning. He was haunted by the 
incubus of a consummate musical gift all his life. He was no 
dance band musician, no happy member of the ensemble. He 
was a lone musical spirit to whom compromise was an alien 
and uncomprehended thing. The playing speaks without 
compromise. There is no fooling when Parker plays. He puts 
into it everything he knows and feels. The best he can hope 
for is that somehow the emotional force of the performance 
will convey itself to ears unversed in the laws of harmonic 

In the years since Parker's death, appreciation of his kind 
of jazz is said to have increased vastly. That is not quite true. 
The following for jazz has vastly increased, certainly, but it is 
doubtful whether a true understanding of Charlie Parker's 
jazz is much more widespread than it was. Today Sonny 
Stitt and Cannonball Adderley sell better than ever Charlie 
Parker dared to dream. But the same people who listen to 
Stitt and discern the springs of passion and musical literacy 
at the roots of the style, may often come to Parker's record- 
ings at a later date, and wonder what all the fuss was about. 
The saxophonists who followed Parker built a comprehensive 
lexicon out of his prolific vocabulary, giving it a superficial 
polish which helps to span that chasm between artist and 
audience without making the complexities of the style itself 
any clearer. 

When Stitt tumbles into one of those double-tempo 
cascades, the listener, sophisticated by his exposure to Stitt's 
previous records, and in some cases the Parker legacy too, can 
predict the moment when Stitt will end that flurry of notes 
and play, almost as though it were ordained by some supernal 
studio dictator, one of those simple, free, blithe phrases to 



counterbalance the semi-quavers, lending poise to the form 
of the solo. Just as most people came to an understanding, at 
least in part, of Lester Young's style through the agency of 
Zoot Sims and Stan Getz, so Charlie Parker's music has 
become a commonplace, a thing to be taken for granted, 
because of the way in which Stitt, Phil Woods and the other 
Parker idolators, have understandably capitalized on his 
originality and rendered it less frightening. 

The result is that world from which Parker's music sprang 
is forgotten and its feats therefore underrated. There can be 
no conception of what he did, unless one is conversant with 
the jazz of the early 19405, just as it is pointless discussing 
Lester Young without an awareness that Hawkins existed 
before him. Some of the early Parker recordings are so 
firmly planted in older roots that it is easy to forget the extent 
to which his personal style grew out of the Swing Age, a fact 
that makes his music not less but more remarkable. 

As late as December 1945, Parker found himself in 
musical situations which fundamentally belonged to earlier 
days in jazz. One of the bitterest episodes of Parker's career 
was the visit to California, where he, with Lucky Thompson, 
Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown, Stan Levy and Dizzy 
Gillespie, was booked into Billy Berg's club. It would be 
enlightening to know what Parker thought of this adventure 
before he undertook it. Presumably there must have been 
some optimism about West Coast audiences. In the event, 
the audiences on Vine Street damned themselves beyond all 
redemption. They were not indifferent but positively hostile, 
It would be easy to make out a case for them, that the music 
was so advanced for its day that its musicians had no right to 
play it, that the man who pays for a ticket has some say in the 
performance. But this was a jazz club, and it audiences ought 
to have been prepared f or adventurousness. The ticketbuyer's 
true function is to sit there and keep his mouth shut and his 


ears open. This the patrons of Billy Berg's refused to do. 
Their hostility must have had a deeply depressing effect on a 
musician so highly-strung as Parker, for whom the incident 
remained one of the low-water marks of his life. 

Before abandoning the West Coast to its own resources, 
Parker and Gillespie participated in a recording session 
organized in Los Angeles by Slim Gaillard. All four tracks are 
based on the simplest of jazz forms, the blues, 1 Got Rhythm 3 
and 'Honeysuckle Rose'. The rhythm section chugs along in 
the authentic style of the 19303. Solo time is restricted to the 
old three-minute limitations of the 78 rpm recording. Parker 
is here working within the jazz frame he was to wreck beyond 
repair. The only element of modernism in the performance is 
indeed the playing of he and Dizzy Gillespie. It is one of the 
most revealing sessions in which Parker was ever involved, for 
the two worlds of jazz are here about to part company, the 
diatonic world to turn in on itself seeking recapitulation of 
the past, the chromatic world to stride on ahead and take 
whatever might come. 

The upheaval caused by Charlie Parker has not subsided. 
It has left the critics and some of the musicians shattered in 
their confidence. Nobody can forget the crass errors of 
judgment which followed on Parker's arrival. Decriers have 
hastily recanted and even become pro-modernists. But the 
results have been curious. An innovator was once slanged, 
but he turned out to be a great musician. Therefore, says the 
world of jazz, we must never again slang an innovator. 
Charlie Parker was a great musician and he was an innovator. 
Therefore all innovators are great musicians. The syllogism 
is so false that it sounds like a joke, but it is a very serious 
thing. The Ornette Colemans of this world are indulged in 
because of the mistake everyone made over Charlie Parker. 
Anybody who cannot enjoy Coleman is accused of abysmal 
reaction. But, in fact, anybody who adopts this cowardly 



critical attitude is proving once more that he has not the 
faintest idea what Charlie Parker's arrival was all about, 

Parker's jazz is built on irrevocable harmonic logic, none 
the less irrevocable because it happens to be beyond the scope 
of many people who profess to understand it. The younger 
modern experimenters, in courting some nebulous lunacy 
called Free Form, which is really no form at all, are applying 
the direct negation of Parker's methods. They are abandoning 
the very harmonic discipline which gave strength and grace 
to Parker's eloquence. One thing it is safe to say. Parker him- 
self would not be surprised. His career was the final link in 
the chain of jazz evolution which rendered it an art form. 
Once any activity becomes an art form, however reluctantly 
it may have achieved the status, good and bad will disappear. 
In their place will be substituted critical theories. In the 
meantime, all the innovations in the world cannot alter the 
truth that the greatest jazz is that which has melodic grace, 
harmonic courage and the sense of form which can miracu- 
lously render abstract musical improvisation into genuine 
artistic expression. Jazz today awaits the coming of another 
Charlie Parker. When he arrives, it will no doubt cast at his 
head the same brickbats it heaved at Bix Beiderbecke, Lester 
Young and Charlie Parker. Critical brickbats are apparently 
just as durable as great jazz records.